Questioning yourself

Sometimes the most useful ‘advice’ someone else can give you isn’t advice at all - it’s asking you the right question. Good questions can help alert you to things you already knew but hadn’t quite seen the implications of, help you to consider a different angle on a problem, or simply help you better structure your thinking.

As I suggested in my last post, often when we’re struggling with a problem or a decision, what we need isn’t other people’s opinions exactly. Instead, what we need is help making sense of everything we already know, help figuring out how to balance our own conflicting intuitions and feelings. And a good question can really help to do this, to re-orient your thinking.

But of course, it’s not only other people who can ask you questions - you can also question yourself! I think it often doesn’t occur to us to explicitly question ourselves, because it feels a bit strange. There’s this sense we have, that if we could ask ourselves a question and answer it, then we should be able to jump straight to the answer. Since all of this is going on within the confines of our own minds, the idea of being able to 'uncover' something we didn't already know can intuitively seem a bit odd.

But our minds aren’t totally transparent to us. This isn’t some deep Freudian-esque claim about unconscious motivations and desires. It’s just a fact that our brains can only hold, and process, a limited amount of information and considerations at once - we can’t immediately see the logical consequences of everything we believe, or see which of our beliefs are inconsistent with one another. We don’t even really know what we’re feeling, or why, a lot of the time. But in some sense, all of this information is there for us to access, and asking the right questions can help us to do this.

Realising this, I’ve started collecting together lists of questions that I might find it helpful to ask myself in different scenarios: when I’m struggling with a decision; when I’ve lost motivation and don’t know why; when I’m setting goals; when I’m feeling low for no clear reason. Part of the reason other people can often ask us better questions than we can ask ourselves is they have a different perspective. Sometimes when you’re in the throes of a tricky problem it’s sometimes hard to think clearly enough about what you need to ask yourself (especially if you’re also experiencing difficult emotions.) So it seems really useful to have a bank of questions prepared in advance that you can turn to in these moments, when you're not really sure where to turn next.

I’ve started collecting some questions like this here - feel free to take a look and suggest additions, I’d love to hear what other people feel are the most useful questions they ask themselves or have been asked by others.

Of course, these questions are fairly general, and often the most useful question for a given problem is something quite specific to the scenario. So perhaps the most useful question you can get into the habit of asking yourself is, “What’s the most useful question I could be asking myself right now?”