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Change Your Questions, Change Your Results

Marilee Adams Posted by Marilee Adams.

Marilee Adams, Ph.D, is a bestselling author and an adjunct professor at American University, School of Public Affairs, teaching in the Key Executive Leadership Program.

Change Your Questions, Change Your Results

Carter Hostelley

Discovering the Power of Self-Questions in Life and at Work

Many years ago, I had a personal breakthrough in thinking that changed not only my own life but also became the foundation for my work consulting with organizations, leaders, and teams.

Here’s what happened.

While in graduate school I received criticism from a professor on some writing and I responded with calmness and curiosity. This amazed me since previously I would have become upset and immobilized. Wondering what accounted for the difference, I learned the answer lay in the kinds of self-questions I was asking. Instead of, “Why doesn’t he like and approve of me?” I had switched to, “How can I fix this?” and “What can I learn?”

What I discovered that day would evolve into a system of skills and tools that teaches us how to pay attention to the questions we’re thinking and asking, analyze them for effectiveness, and change them if better questions would help us achieve better results. We learn to observe our thinking from two divergent mindsets: in Judger mindset we ask questions such as, “What’s wrong?” and “Who’s to blame?” In Learner mindset we ask, “What works?” “What’s valuable here?” and “What can I learn?” Both mindsets are part of human nature, and once aware of them, we expand our ability to choose how we think and relate-and therefore, what kind of results we can expect.

Learner mindset generally leads to creativity, productivity, satisfaction, and success. By contrast, when we focus Judger mindset on ourselves, as I did, we develop self-doubt and difficulty accepting even the most constructive suggestions. Focusing Judger mindset on others can lead to anger and conflict, for example when we get mired in Judger at work with a colleague or team. This was the problem for Susan, an executive coaching client in a global organization.

Susan thought she would have to leave the job she loved because she found her boss, Phillip, so impossible. We discovered that without realizing it, Susan constantly asked herself two Judger questions: “What’s he going to do wrong this time?” and “How’s he going to make me look bad?” Phillip obviously didn’t have a chance with her.

I suggested a new question that might change Susan’s thinking about Phillip. It was, “How can I make my boss look good?” Though Susan was shocked at the suggestion, she was thrilled with the results. A few months later she had gotten both a raise and a promotion! Moreover, this new Learner self-question led her to refocus her efforts in a more creative and constructive way in general. She and Phillip began co-leading a project team, and through their new collaboration, resolved a productivity problem that had plagued the company for months.

By changing her self-questions, Susan initiated positive changes everywhere in her job. Her orientation shifted from one of “answers and opinions” to one of “new questions and curiosity.” She learned to “accept Judger and practice Learner.” She told me she always remembers this lesson: great results begin with great questions.


  • Pay attention to the questions you’re asking yourself-are they helping or hurting you? How could you change them?
  • Observe, with empathy, whether you or others are operating from Judger or Learner mindset in any specific situation.
  • In the spirit of “accepting Judger and practicing Learner,” what Learner questions could help you get better results-at work and at home?

Marilee Adams, Ph.D. is a partner with The Center for Inquiring Leadership and the originator of QuestionThinking ¢- ¢, a methodology for transforming thinking, action, and results through powerful question asking. She is also the author of Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 7 Powerful Tools for Life and Work (Berrett-Koehler, 2004). To learn more about the Center for Inquiring Leadership, go to www.CenterforInquiringLeadership.com.