Ask What, Not Why
an excerpt from LIVING YOUR
by Laura Berman Fortgang
Published by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam
Reprinted with permission
The following excerpt is taken from
Chapter One of LIVING
YOUR BEST LIFE. Imagine your brain as one big search engine. When you need
answers in life, you form questions that serve as your keywords. Your brain then
searches its resources and gives out possible answers. The more specific your
keyword entry, the more specific the answer. This excerpt, "Ask What, Not
Why" discusses which questions access your inner-wisdom and move you toward
your goal, and which will return the equivalent of an "Error 404: File not
Laura Berman Fortgang is one of
America's foremost life and career coaches. She has been featured on the
"Oprah Winfrey Show," and profiled in such publications as "The
Wall Street Journal," "USA Today," and "Glamour." Her
column on Women.com is read by more than five million people every month.
More about the book and author follows
WHAT, NOT WHY
Reckoning with your mind in order to
free up your capacity for wisdom is the ongoing battle of life. For some, the
battle is constant; others are not as affected. Regardless of which category you
fall into, this chapter will give you the first tool for accessing the wisdom
that can change your life. It's a tool you use every day: the ordinary, common
One of the most common questions we ask
is "Why?" "Why" is the language of seeking to understand.
When we were young children, we used this question to figure out how the world
works: "Why is the sky blue?," "Why did Sparky run away?" As
we get older, we still use "why" to bring our circumstances into
alignment with our ability to understand our world.
eventually loses its power to move us forward; instead, we get "stuck"
by obsessing over questions like "Why did that happen?," "Why am
I this way?," and "Why aren't I better-thinner-smarter?"
Even if you're not in the throes of
despair, you might still be stuck using despair's questions. When you use
"why" to ask a question, you are struggling to come up with
information to help you understand a situation or circumstance. I call this
asking an information question. Information questions will give you answers that
explain the past. They yield answers that fill the coffers of your mind with
details, as well as emotion, blame, and perhaps even more problems. While we
assume that more information will enable us to be released from our problems, an
information question does little to move you forward in life. In fact, sometimes
they can't even be answered. In working with clients for almost a decade, I've
seen them endure more frustration than necessary because they asked too many
information questions. Asking bad questions is a bad habit.
But don't get me wrong: asking
"Why?" has been the key to many a brilliant discovery. When it comes
to making changes in our lives, however, "why" is not an effective
short-term tool. The way to your life blueprint requires asking deeper, more
useful questions in order to get better answers and more effective action. The
questions that will help you do that are access questions, which I like to call
Wisdom Access Questions. These questions access your innate wisdom to create
positive, forward motion.
WISDOM ACCESS QUESTIONS
Imagine your brain as one big Yahoo.com.
It is a search engine tapping into a data bank of information that you already
have available to you and that is made up of acquired experience, knowledge, and
intuition. When you need answers in life, you form questions that serve as your
keywords. Your brain then searches its resources and gives out possible answers.
The more specific your keyword entry, the more specific your answer -- that's
the wisdom of the computer. How did it know you needed exactly that? You told it
your question and it found the answer for you. This is what Wisdom Access
Questions (WAQs) will do -- help you be specific in your information gathering
so you can come up with answers that have the power to move you forward.
Nearly all the questions we ask begin
with one of five words: "who,' "what," "why,"
"when," or "how." Although these words help us gather facts
and understand each other in conversation, not all of them yield wisdom. We've
already eliminated "why" as a viable Wisdom Access Question. "
Who," "when," and "how" fall into the information
question category. However, using "what" helps the brain behave as an
efficient search engine. "What" questions force you to be specific in
your query and being specific leads to solution and awareness; on the other
hand, asking "Why?" leaves you with only the question.
For example, if I asked you, "Why
are you reading this book?," you might tell me a story about some things
you are wondering about. Maybe you'd go on to provide a few details about what
brought you to this moment of information seeking. Your responses would probably
have something to do with your past. But if I asked, "What outcome do you
want to reach by reading this book?," the answer you give would be future-
oriented. It would also be much more specific, since you would be forced to look
forward, rather than backward. This releases energy and moves you from feeling
stuck to living in possibility -- you can see opportunities just over the
So let me ask you again: What outcome
do you want to reach by reading this book? Answers like "To get a new
life," "To be happier in what I do," or "To find the guts to
take a huge risk" have a momentum of their own -- regardless of what the
final result ends up being, these responses get you moving toward a goal.
The search engine in our brains is
highly sophisticated, but it requires a well-phrased question to take advantage
of it. WAQs are designed to do that. Using "what" questions provides
the opportunity to start you along the road to accessing your own wisdom.
Take a look at the list of questions
below and see how you can make any question a Wisdom Access Question by using
CONVERTING INFORMATION QUESTIONS
INTO WISDOM ACCESS QUESTIONS
*Instead of Asking Yourself* / *Ask*
Why is this happening to me? / What do
I need to get through this?
Why am I such a failure? / What will
get me what I want?
Why aren't I better at this? / What can
I do to improve?
Why can't I get it? / What do I need to
know to understand?
Why can't I have a charmed life like
____? / What can I learn from _____ ?
*Instead of Asking Others* / *Ask*
Why did she say that? / What could have
made her say that?
Whose fault was it? / What is the
Who did what? / What would have made a
What happened [seeking details] / What
happened? [seeking outcome]
Why would they do that? / What could be
learned from this?
How will you do that? / What will you
HOW AND WHEN TO USE WAQs
Imagine two friends commiserating over
a problem. One is expressing a complaint and the other is taking the supportive
role. If the supporter was to ask information questions -- Where were you? Who
started it? Why? -- he would be treated to details about who did what to whom in
a blow-by-blow reenactment of the drama. However, if the supporter knew how to
ask Wisdom Access Questions -- What is upsetting about what happened? -- the
friend with the problem would move from problem to solution in record-breaking
To find the appropriate
"what" question to ask, you must change the focus from details and
information to outcomes. Get away from trying to understand a problem and move
toward solving it. In the process, you'll see that you don't really need to
understand a dilemma to know how to solve it. Using "what" questions
will train you to think toward the future, as if you are already ahead of the
problem. "What" assumes that a solution is the goal.
Sometimes, we want to be left alone
with our problems for a while. Have you ever tried to help a friend who didn't
really want help? Remember how frustrated that left you feeling? When you or
someone you know wants to mull over a problem, not solve it, all the WAQs in the
world are not going to help. You must truly want to stop ruminating and start
solving the problem if "what" questions are to be of any use.
Even though you can do this all by
yourself, I believe it helps to watch other people gain clarity when you ask
them "what" questions. Asking WAQs is a productive and highly generous
listening tool for you to use with friends, colleagues, and loved ones. Allowing
another person to hear herself is a wonderful gift. This kind of thoughtful
communication takes time and patience, but it will improve the quality of the
relationship. Whether you use Wisdom Access Questions to move yourself or
someone else forward, keep in mind that you have found a great tool.
I use WAQs with my clients, thus
enabling them to create more positive circumstances more quickly than they do on
their own. My clients predictably begin to experience breakthroughs, both small
and large, which I really can't take credit for. I'm just there asking the right
question. It's my clients who have the answers -- they just needed a prompt in
order to accelerate the discovery.
Nothing makes me happier than to hear a
client say, "That's a good question." Or better yet, "I hate you
for asking me that!" Those are surefire signs that we have struck
Let's get question-asking to work for
you. If you are ready to begin using WAQs, it may be hard to phrase them
properly at first. The two conversations that follow cover the same subject
matter but with dramatically different results. In the first, you'll see a coach
speak with a client in a more conventional way, without using Wisdom Access
client: Something's really bothering me
about this decision and I can't quite put my finger on it.
coach: Why do you think that is?
client: I don't know. I've been giving
it a lot of thought, but nothing's clear.
coach: Why do you think this is
client: It's something about this
coach: Was it something he said to you?
client: Oh, he said he knew these
people who could help with the deal and then, when I asked who they were, he
avoided giving me names.
coach: How did that make you feel?
coach: Did any one thing annoy you?
client: Just everything.
coach: Do you know what you want to do
client: Just drop the whole thing, I
think. But I'm just not sure.
The coach's questions asked here focus
on information seeking, and in such a nonspecific way that the client isn't
prompted to provide dynamic answers that would propel him forward. There is no
freedom from the problem, no break from its burden, no movement toward a
Now compare the approach in our next
example, where the coach uses WAQs.
client: Something's really been
bothering me about this decision and I can't quite put my finger on it.
coach: Take a guess -- *what* is it
that's bugging you?
client: I don't know.
coach: If you pretended you knew,
*what* would you say?
client: Hmm. I don't trust the guy who
brought me the idea.
coach: You don't trust the guy. *What*
led you to that conclusion?
client: He has been very vague. He
won't commit to anything he has said. I've even asked him about it.
coach: *What* do you need to move
client: I need to find someone I can
coach: Great. Any ideas as to who?
client: Yes. There's another guy I
think could do the job much better.
coach: When will you call him?
Eureka! Clarity, relief, action,
forward motion. Here, the client's answers are dynamic and they ring with
certainty. Wisdom is attained and, with it, a break from the burden of the
problem. This liberating break is the result of using Wisdom Access Questions.
CASE STUDY: USING "WHAT"
AS A WAQ
Peggy is a corporate executive who
participated in one of my wisdom seminars. She told me about an employee who
always saw the glass as half empty, never half full. He found the fault in
anything and the negative side of everything. Peggy felt he didn't want to take
responsibility for his actions. He justified everything he did by saying it was
someone else's fault or someone gave him the wrong information. Peggy struggled
with how to get him to see that he was indeed involved and accountable for his
own words and actions.
On a recent conference call, Peggy had
to deliver some difficult news to her team about significant changes in the
company. This employee was on the call and was disruptive and very
self-involved. It made her realize she had to address his behavior sooner rather
than later. . "What I really wanted to say to him," Peggy told me,
"was 'Who do you think you are? Why do you expect me or the company to help
you? Why do you always see things in the most negative light? If you spent less
time on the phone gossiping, you'd have the time and positive energy to devote
to planning and executing for success. And the way to get any positive
reinforcement from me, or to get me to embrace the issue as you see it, is not
by being passive-aggressive on a conference call, asking me the same question
four times, or pushing my hot buttons in an attempt to corner me into a
response. Whether you like it or not, I am the manager. You are the
representative. This is not a democracy. I will lead and you will follow.'"
Instead, Peggy addressed the issue with
her employee in a casual conversation over dinner. She had her notes from my
seminar with her, along with a list of WAQs. Here's what she said:
"On our conference call, I picked
up on the tension in your voice. Tell me what you found upsetting about the new
incentive plan. Let me ask that another way. What emotion was triggered in you
as we discussed the plan? What do you want now? What is your goal for this year?
What will get you what you want? What can I do to help? What can we do together
to make it work?"
The employee was bowled over, but also
stymied. He'd been expecting Peggy to go for the jugular, but she didn't buy
into his crisis. She consciously decided to pull back and once he realized there
would be no fight, he was forced to respond in the same way. The Wisdom Access
Questions Peggy asked left no room for excuses, self-justification, or any
defensive behaviors. He was left with no one to look at but himself. After this
frank, open discussion, he and Peggy were aware of his insecurities, his fears,
and his goals.
She was able to learn what he wanted
from her as his boss because she used WAQs. They diffused a very difficult
situation. You saw the raw emotional reaction in her words to me, which anyone
could understand and relate to. However, Peggy made a deliberate choice to seek
a solution instead of fishing for more information, and getting mired in
emotion, blame, and details. In so doing, she was able to improve a working
relationship she long ago decided was beyond repair. This was a challenge for
Peggy, but in committing to elevating the exchange, she challenged her employee
too, and together they got new, unexpected results. Wisdom Access Questions were
essential in making this possible.
WAQs AND RELATIONSHIPS
You've seen how Wisdom Access Questions
help in a work- related scenario, but they are equally effective in other areas
of your life, such as romantic relationships. My friend Scott recently told me
how WAQs led him and his wife to have what she said was "one of the best
conversations" they'd had in years. His wife had a problem she wanted to
discuss, and what Scott had done was resist his natural urge to jump in with a
solution. Instead, he talked through the issues involved, using "what"
questions only. His wife was able to solve her own problem, thanks in no small
part to Scott's attentive questions. She felt connected to him and very loved
Scott understood that he did not have
to "do" anything for his wife. Nor did he have to "fix"
anything for her. Just asking the right questions was the loving listening and
helpful support she needed.
Never underestimate the power of a few
access questions to raise the level of intimacy in a relationship. When people
feel heard and when they are helped to hear themselves, they often experience a
deep connection to the power they have. This is often translated into deep
gratitude for the person who helped them get there. Whether they are conscious
of it or not, this greater sense of connection to oneself and another makes for
the kind of relationships most people are looking for.
As you begin to realize the benefit of
using WAQs in your home and work life, I need to warn you of an exception to the
"It's good to ask 'What?'" rule. There is in fact one "what"
question that is not a WAQ, but an "information" question. You've
probably used it countless times on yourself and on others. Ready?
"What should I do?"
Oh, yes, that's a very big
"what" question but definitely not a WAQ. How many times have you
asked friends, "What should I do?," or told yourself you "really
should" do x, y or z? The answers to "What should I do?" prevent
you from asking the most powerful WAQ you can use. It's very simple and it's the
exact opposite: "What do I want?"
That's it. I know it sounds very
simple. And very easy. But most people have a really hard time answering this
question, because most of us don't know what we want. I see this up close every
day. Most smart, sophisticated people, with goals and plans, *think* they know
what they want. However, truly having a sense of what would make them happy is a
different story. We tend to be much more certain of what we should do, say,
wear, or look like than of what will guide us to inner happiness.
It is my experience that seven out of
ten people don't really know what they want. They think they do, but they come
to discover that much of what drives them is unmet needs or the expectations of
others. We will work on making sure you do know what you want in Part Two, but
for now just avoid asking the information question "What should I do?"
CASE STUDY: THE POWER OF
"WANT" VERSUS "SHOULD"
My phone rang. It was time for
Patricia's fourth session with me and, upon picking up the phone, I could
instantly hear her agitation. "I've been trying to rewrite my résumé all
week and I just can't decide which direction will make it what I want it to be.
Should I be focusing on getting a job in advertising or make it read stronger
for work in software marketing?"
Patricia was a singer/songwriter by
avocation and a successful communications professional in the "real
world." She wanted to solidify her plans to find more fulfilling work in
the career that paid the bills and, at the same time, further her artistic
endeavors. In our earlier sessions, she had said things like "I just don't
know what to do. I have to think more about what I should do. Maybe if I try to
do both. What do you think I should do?"
"What I think doesn't matter right
now," I'd replied. "What you think does."
Patricia's high level of anxiety and
her constant use of the word "should" was a red flag, so I gave her an
assignment. "Patricia," I said, "for the next week, I want you to
eliminate the word 'should' from your vocabulary."
After a moment of silence, Patricia
asked, "Well, what should I say?" She then chuckled, realizing the
word had slipped out again.
"Use the word 'want' for one week
and see what happens. Ask yourself what you want instead of repeatedly asking
what you should do."
When we had our next session on the
phone, it was like I was speaking to a new person.
"Hi, Laura. I want to be in
By asking herself Wisdom Access
Questions instead of the information-seeking "What should I do?,"
Patricia was able to discover what she truly wanted. She had carved wisdom out
of all her confusion simply by changing the questions she was asking. She was
starting to unlock the life that would make her happiest.
IT'S MORE THAN THE WORDS
We have seen that changing a few words
in a WAQ can make a world of difference in the quality of the answer you
receive, but the truth is that changing the words alone is not enough. Getting
good answers to access questions depends not only on what words you use but on
where your underlying focus is. To get the best results, your underlying focus
should be on solutions and forward motion for your life. When you play with the
words, the questions change and their power to change your life multiplies. By
committing to monitoring your inner motivation, however, you not only change
your life, but begin to transform who you are.
When you can remain above the fray and
stay focused on solutions and forward motion during the adversities of your
life, you've begun to align with your blueprint. Your life can flow instead of
getting stopped behind a dam of blame, criticism, problems, and anxiety. The
focus of your inner motivation (intention) makes all the difference. In the
reckoning there are really only two choices: Are you someone who intends to stay
"stuck," or are you someone who intends to move forward? To use a
Wisdom Access Question successfully, you must intend to move forward.
This reminds me of how I learned to
drive in Manhattan. For a decade, I refused to drive there because of the terror
that consumed me as taxis and buses cut me off. I would continually become
exasperated, swearing and wondering, "What's wrong with these people?"
One day, as I was complaining about my inability to drive myself into the city,
my husband uttered a few simple words that rocked my driving world: "The
thing to remember to drive well in Manhattan is to never stop moving
Not only is this a great mantra for
driving, it works for life. I'm not talking about motion for motion's sake, but
about focusing your efforts on getting out of any potholes as soon as you can,
even if you fall back into them later. Although such a shift in focus may
require a fundamental change in you, it's the only way to ensure that when you
ask WAQs, you're not just mouthing the words.
ARE YOU AN INFORMATION SEEKER OR A
Let's take a look at what kinds of
intentions you've been working with. The following list describes two very
different kinds of motivation in asking questions. Most people are basically
information seekers or wisdom seekers, although you may exhibit characteristics
of both. Which type are you?
*Characteristics of Information
- Asks questions that are
self-centered (What's wrong with me, the world, the situation in relation to
how it affects me?)
- Digs for evidence to justify point
- Is oriented toward problems
- Is territorial and assumes
everything is scarce
- Hoards and controls information and
- Reacts without thinking to problems
- Must have or give answers as part of
- Holds knowledge as a source of
power, something to manipulate and control
*Characteristics of Wisdom Seeker*
Each list will give you choices as to
how you can use questions and help you determine which characteristics you are
predisposed to. There is nothing wrong with finding yourself in the information
seeker list, but you will see that you could be making better choices, asking
different questions and producing less stressful outcomes if you focus on
becoming the wisdom seeker.
To experience your life unfolding with
ease, the shift from information seeker to wisdom seeker becomes necessary. We
will explore how to make the shifts in Parts Two and Three, but let's use the
next exercise to learn how your motivation may need to change. Take your time
here, in order to absorb how this could transform your life.
ABOUT THE BOOK
YOUR BEST LIFE: Ten Strategies for Getting from Where You Are to Where You're
Meant to Be
by Laura Berman Fortgang
Published by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc.
(ISBN: 1-58542-092-1, 224 pages, $23.95)
A founding member of the International
Coach Federation and the president and owner of InterCoach, Laura Berman
Fortgang is at the forefront of one of the fastest-growing consulting
disciplines in the world. Teaching advanced communication and living skills,
Fortgang has helped thousands of clients find more rewarding careers, make more
money, and exchange a stressful daily treadmill of endless goal-seeking for life
in which gains come easily.
In this book, Fortgang shares her
secrets of personal and professional balance and fulfillment. She presents ten
tried- and-true strategies that lead to what she calls a "best life"
-- one in which we:
- Have more than enough time for the
things that really matter to us.
- Attract opportunities, seemingly
- Resolve problems and crises with
- Take chances that move our lives
- Have deep respect for the
individuals we are.
Fortgang suggests that instead of
frenetically trying to have it all, we focus on asking ourselves what we really
want by posing questions that lead us to positive action. Offering accessible,
easy-to-follow techniques, she shows us how to discover our own unique
"lucrative purpose" and to design a "magnet" life plan --
perfectly suited to our needs -- that honors our true desires and talents and
draws to us the more satisfying existence we deserve.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Berman Fortgang is the author of
TAKE YOURSELF TO THE TOP and a popular speaker. She has been featured on
"The Oprah Winfrey Show," as well as other national television and
radio programs, and has been profiled in such publications as "The Wall
Street Journal," "USA Today," and "Glamour." Her column
on Women.com is read by more than five million people every month. Fortgang
lives in Montclair, New Jersey.
Excerpted from LIVING
YOUR BEST LIFE by Laura Berman Fortgang. Copyright 2001 by Laura Berman
Fortgang. Excerpted by permission of Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, a member of
Penguin Putnam Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be
reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.