#007: The Importance of Asking the Right Question [Podcast]

Last week was a really difficult for me personally. First, I encountered enormous obstacles in trying to record six video sessions for a new product. We experienced technical problems, construction noise, and a loud thunderstorm. The recording took three times as long as I had budgeted.

Then the head of the marketing firm we had hired to manage the pre-launch campaign for my new book resigned. It was a total surprise and a big disappointment.

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After these two challenges I found myself asking a very bad question: “What is wrong with me?” In this episode, I talk about the importance of asking the right question and suggest five strategies for doing so.

Special Announcements

  1. I will be speaking at Catalyst West on April 18–20 in Irvine, California. I will be leading one of the Labs on the topic of my new book, Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World. In fact, I will be speaking at all the Catalyst conferences this year, so if you can’t make it to Irvine, join us at Catalyst Dallas on May 9–11 or Catalyst Atlanta on October 3–5. If you haven’t registered, you can do so at ComeToCatalyst.com. Catalyst is one of the very best leadership conferences out there. I look forward to it every year.
  2. I will also be doing all the backstage interviews at the Chick-fil-A Leadercast on May 4th in Atlanta. This is also one of the very best leadership conferences available. It is put on by the same people who do Catalyst, a company called Giant Impact. This year I am looking forward to interviewing Tim Tebow, Marcus Buckingham, John Maxwell, Soledad O’Brien, Patrick Lencioni, Andy Stanley, Coach Urban Meyer and many others. These interviews will be broadcast live and then replayed on my blog in the weeks following the event. In addition to the live event in Atlanta, this event will be simulcast to more than 100 locations around the world. You can find out more at Chick-fil-ALeadercast.com.
  3. I now have a Listener Feedback Hotline. You can call (615) 656-5001 and leave a message or a question. The system sends me an e-mail with an audio file of your message as soon as you hang up. If you have an idea for a podcast you would like to see or a question about an upcoming episode, I’d love to hear from you. You are also welcome to e-mail me if you prefer.

Episode Outline

Questions are powerful tools. They can ignite hope and lead to new insights. They can also destroy hope and keep us stuck in bad assumptions. The key is to be intentional and choose our questions well.

Examples of bad questions:

  1. Why does this always happen to me?
  2. What did I do to deserve this?
  3. What’s wrong with me?

As soon as we ask these questions, our brains go to work, serving up answers. It is almost automatic. The answers have a way of reinforcing the assumptions behind the question.

For example, I recently met with a friend of mine who lost his job about nine months ago. He had plenty of interviews but had yet to receive a job offer. He asked me, “What’s wrong with me?”

The problem with this question is that it assumes something is wrong with him. If you ask questions like this, your mind immediately begins proposing possible answers. Maybe it’s because:

  • You’re too old.
  • You’re too young.
  • You’e inexperienced.
  • You’re overqualified.
  • You’re too passive.
  • You’re too assertive.
Whatever the question, the answers reinforce the assumption and provide an excuse for why you are not getting the results you want.
But what if you ask a different question? For example, my friend could ask:
  • What could I do to make my interviews more memorable?
  • What are the two or three attributes that make me the best possible candidate for the job?
  • How can I follow up in a way that makes it easier for the prospective employer to say “yes”?
  • How could my apparent liabilities really be an asset in this situation?
These are constructive questions. They empower and create new possibilities. They lead to action. And they will produce results.
Here are five strategies for asking better, more empowering questions:
  1. Become conscious of the questions you are asking yourself.
  2. Evaluate these questions: are these good questions?
  3. Be intentional and choose the better question.
  4. Write down the answers your brain serves up.
  5. Take action on these insights.
This whole process goes back to a premise I have written and spoken about many times before: If you want to change the results you are getting, you must change your thinking. Everything—everything!—starts there.

Listener Questions

I also answer four questions from my listeners.

  • “I am having a hard time identifying the questions I am asking myself. How can I get better at this?”
  • “I am miserable in my job. Unfortunately, it is affecting my life outside of work. I feel that I am slipping further and further into depression. What can I do to turn my situation around?”
  • “I often witness my friends asking themselves the wrong question. How can I point this out diplomatically in a way that is helpful without making them feel defensive?”
  • “What separates a good question from a bad one?”

Episode Resources

I mentioned the following resources in the show:


You can download a transcript of this episode here.

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Question: What would asking different questions make possible for you? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://jonstolpe.com/ Jon Stolpe

    I like to ask the question: “How could I do this better next time?”

    When I seriously ask this question of myself and of those around me, it’s amazing the results.   It’s important to seek continuous improvement.  Asking the right question and being open-minded about the answers is a key starting point for making things better.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Excellent question.

    • http://darensirbough.com/ Daren Sirbough

      This is one of the most common questions I now ask. I have improved my piano playing and teaching greatly because of it!

  • http://www.godsabsolutelove.com/ Patricia Zell

    One important question I ask myself is “Do I really want to do this?” Then I think about what an action entails and what the possible consequences would be. For example, as I completed my first non-fiction book, I had to decide how I wanted to publish it. I took a realistic look at the whole situation and concluded that I would probably have a hard time finding a publisher because my “theology” isn’t exactly traditional, that I wanted to retain complete control of the book, and that, for a while, finding time to market it would hard to do. By asking my question, I decided for self-publishing. Now, I am beginning work on a series of novels and I have already asked myself if I really want to do this, especially considering the huge amount of work involved. So far, the answer is yes.

    By the way, when we go through weeks like what you went through, we should be ecstatic that God has promised to work everything out to our good. Sometimes, we have to grit our teeth together and press on with confidence in the power of God’s absolute love.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      As my week wore on, I kept coming back to James 1: “When all kinds of trials crowd into your lives my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders but welcome them as friends.” (Phillips Translation) Thanks.

  • http://www.michaelnichols.org/about Michael Nichols

    Great post! I’ve found they same to be true in my life. If I’m not getting the results I desire, it’s more productive to focus on how I can get moving again. The number one question for me has become – How can I get more specific? I wrote about it here – http://www.michaelnichols.org/get-better-results.

    Specificity leads to greater accountability and better results – all the time!

  • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

    These questions can become part of bad habit loops. Something bad or unexpected happens, cue up the negative question, answer with all sorts of negative responses, and reward with a pity party.

    Been there, done that…

    Since the easiest way to change a bad habit into a good one is to change the routine, we just need to engage the simple question exchange that you propose, and come up with a much better outcome. 

    Changing this one simple habit loop could make a world of difference.

    I need to put these questions on cards so I can see them regularly.

    Thanks for a great post, Michael!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, John. I appreciate your comments and tying these back into habits.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Utilizing index cards to visually retrain thought patterns is an excellent idea, John! I need to do the same.

  • craig.hadden

    Thanks Michael – great advice here.

  • http://www.thegeezergadgetguy.com/ Thad Puckett

    I wonder sometimes if our education system does everything to avoid any sense of self-assessment?   Yet I see in your questions a critical need to do just that.  Be completely honest about our own situation or assessing our performance.  If you cannot be clear about how you did (in an interview, on a project, on a test, etc.) it will be very difficult to improve.

    Thanks for another stimulating post.

  • http://www.andrewsobel.com/ Andrew Sobel

    When I ask myself “Why?” about something it helps uncover the real issues I am grappling with. (The “five whys” was an approach developed by Sakichi Toyoda at Toyota in the 1980s to solve manufacturing quality issues. The idea was that by repeatedly asking “Why?” the root cause of the problem would reveal itself). For example, I typically accept too much work and take on too many clients–when I stop and ask why I’m about to say “Yes” to a new engagement it helps me sort out if it really makes sense. “Why?” can be a wonderful question but be careful about asking it too much because in the wrong context it can come across as negative and critical (“Why did you do that?” can sound like “Why would you do such a dumb thing!”). 

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      That’s an important distinction, Andrew. I agree–I’ve learned I need to get to the root of why I’m saying “yes” too often and allowing myself to repeatedly get to that place of being overwhelmed.

  • http://gailbhyatt.wordpress.com Gail B. Hyatt

    To the readers: Make sure you listen and don’t just read the notes. This is a really good podcast today.

  • Serpentine314

    It would appear that last week you were given an opportunity to put into practice the principles in your book getting noticed in a noisy world. Lol. Keep up the good work brother. I have been blessed by your blogg. Thank you — Michael Derrick

  • LivewithFlair

    In teaching and in writing, I kept praying and asking God what I needed to know to improve.  I was walking up the stairs to my classroom at Penn State, and this question set me free:  “How can I love students better in this task?”  When things go wrong for me in the classroom and in my writing, usually it’s because I’ve failed to love somehow.  This was a breakthrough for me.  The answer is love.  I felt more free than ever.  I’m asking my husband, my children, and my neighbors, “How can I love you better?”  What do you think?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I love that because it puts the focus on others. Thanks,.

  • http://www.kellycombs.com/ Kelly Combs

    A great book for women is Me, Myself and Lies, by Jennifer Rothschild. It is about how negative self talk effects us, and the changes we can make.  The wrong questions only produce self-pity or negative worth; asking ourselves the right questions produces motivation and change.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

       Jennifer Rothschild speaks and writes on this topic beautifully .

  • http://darensirbough.com/ Daren Sirbough

    I have intentionally been challenging myself with these types of thoughts this year. Questioning the questions I ask. It’s funny to notice the change in attitude and perspective when I ask the right questions. I’m sharing this with my facebook friends in the morning.

    • Jim Martin

      Daren, this is so true.  Asking the right questions whether to oneself or to others is far more powerful than some of us may realize.

  • http://www.workyouenjoy.com Adam Rico

    A question I often ask myself and my clients is, “What do I have control over in this situation?”

    It is so easy to start feeling like outside influences are dictating our response to our circumstances.

    Almost every time the answer to this question ultimately boils down to having control over our thoughts and our attitude.

    Thanks Michael for the great podcast!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Adam, that is a great question. It really shifts one’s focus—which is exactly what a good question should do.

  • Linda

    Thank-you Michael for this reminder – I can relate to Mary with the miserable job – I wouldn’t describe mine as miserable but certainly not fulfilling. I’ve learned over the last year or so that I really need to keep my eyes focused on Jesus as He is the one that will give me the strength I need to keep on ‘keepin’ on’. My strength is in the Lord, My hope is in the Lord.  Again thank-you Michael – I appreciate your words of wisdom. 

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      You are welcome, Linda. Thanks.

  • http://bbcjc.com/ Randy Dignan

    This is excellent!  Again it calls to my mind how many times Jesus asked questions…  I love the how could I do better next time question as mentioned by Mr. Stolpe.  It impacts self and those around you!  One of the questions I have learned to love asking is this…  What question should I be asking that I have not asked yet??  It is a question I regularly ask someone who may be older or more experienced than me in my field of work (pastoring/ministry).  They have insight into knowledge I should be asking about or for but I just haven’t the knowledge to ask!!  Hope that makes sense!  When you start pastoring at 22 years old, you ask lots and lots of questions of the WISE…  God bless y’all!

    • Jim Martin

      Randy, you really do have a good question.  “What question should I be asking that I have not asked yet?”  Far too often we almost seem to be on automatic when we ask ourselves questions.  Asking oneself this question might at least prompt some thinking instead of reacting.

  • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

    I used to ask myself all the time what was wrong me. But then I watched the Bob Newhart clip you posted the other day, and I stopped it.  Now I’m using a much better question: What’s his/her/their problem? 

  • http://www.teawithtiffany.com/ Tiffany Stuart

    Michael, like you, I don’t know how to type. I don’t use my pinkies which makes me I’m a 6 finger typer. I took a typing class in high school and dropped the class only a few weeks into it. Why? Because I  hated it and I thought there is NO way I will ever need this skill. Boy, was I wrong. I’ve thought about learning to type since I write and would love to be able to type faster. Because of your sharing and the reminder, I will put that on my future goals list for later this year.

    Good luck with your new typing program. If you like it, I’d love to know what you are using.

    As always, thank you for pointing us in the right direction. I appreciate you.

  • Dale Melchin

    This is excellent.  Ultimately we must ask ourselves questions that lead us toward our vision, rather than away from it.  This is one of the big problems of self-diagnosis.  I think you should write a blog post with nothing but positively charged questions so that way we can think more creatively.  Thanks again for all you do!

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

       That’s a great idea, Dale! I’d like to see that post as well, and then put it into something I can print off and hang in my office.

  • http://www.kentrecommends.com/ Kent Faver

    Wonderful podcast Michael – thanks for sharing – you have a real gift here.  I’ve tended to ask demoralizing questions over the past six years with two daughters in college (Why can’t I make more money?!).   This has helped me tremendously.

    • Jim Martin

      Kent, you express this well.  Our questions can be so demoralizing.  (I’ve asked way too many of these.)  

      So glad this was helpful.

  • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

    Just yesterday, I faced a situation where asking the right question made a difference. I received one of those emails where someone “unleashed” just a bit. My first response was hurt, followed by a “What’s wrong with me?” thought stream. I actually asked my husband that exact question! Later in the evening, I realized the better question(s) could be: (1) What external variables might be impacting the other person’s comments? and (2) What external variables (lack of sleep, exhaustion, etc.) might be influencing how I’m receiving this? I was taking it far more personally than I should have.

    • Jim Martin

      Michele, this is a great example of applying what Michael is talking about.  Thanks for this example.  Hearing your example helped me to remember several of my own.

      • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

        I’m glad to hear it, Jim. Thanks!

  • http://www.robsorbo.com/p/welcome-from-disqus.html Rob Sorbo

    Great topic. I was first exposed to the idea of asking good questions when I first started working with databases. If you have well-organized data, you can find the answer to any question if you know how to put queries together (i.e. how you ask the question), but if you don’t make the query correctly, you won’t get what you want to know.

  • rbodenstab

    Michael, thanks for sharing and being transparent! In order to ask the “better” question, we need to have a foundation.  We need to take our thoughts captive.  And we need to understand that we will suffer and we need to understand that we need to suffer well. Rom. 5:3-5, “We glory in our sufferings, for we know that our sufferings produce patience, patience character, character hope, and hope will not leave us ashamed.”  This foundation helps me to approach difficult situations and to rely on God and His Holy Spirit. It is work! But it is worth the diligent efforts!

  • Ladydi62

    I was so inspired by your blog about asking the right question that I took the time to listen to the audio.  WOW — I have been conditioned to ask and listen to bad questions all my life.  At 50, it has been very hard yet refreshing to step back and look at the questions I have listened to and asked myself.  The thing I struggle with the most is when I am asked questions and feel like I am in an interigation setting.  How can I approach this differently?  Because of my past (life story) I get overwhelmed, flustered, disappointed and left feeling like I didn’t really truly the questions that are being asked.  How can I conquer this in my life. 

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Here’s what I suggest. Write down 2–3 good questions: For example:

      – What does this make possible?
      – What am I grateful for right now?
      – What has been the best thing that has happened to me today?

      Now repeat those questions whenever you get stuck—one at a time. Double-down until it becomes second nature.
      Hope that helps. Thanks.

      • DaleMelchin

        There’s gotta be more questions!  We want a full blog of them. :-D

        • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

          That’s probably a good idea for a blog. Thanks.

          • http://dalemelchin.wordpress.com/ Dale Melchin

            Thanks Michael.  :-D 

  • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

    Wow!  This one hits pretty close to home. I deal with occasional self-esteem issues, so things like this podcast are great resources to have on hand.  Thanks!

    • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

      Glad to hear the podcast touched you Jeff. Can you see it helping you in your new move?

  • Deborah

    Great podcast. One life-giving question in challenging times might be ” How is God inviting me to grow and shift in this season?”

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Great question!

  • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

    Asking different questions could make having more fulfilling friendships possible. Or to a new career path. 

    I grew up in an area where the questions were always negative and led to depressing answers. I’ve changed the way I ask questions in recent years but still find myself falling back into the old ways.

  • Marti Pearson

    This reminds me of the book, QBQ by John Miller.  QBQ is a very short book that talks about “The Question Behind the Question: What to Really Ask Yourself: Practicing Personal Accountability in Business and Life.”  If you’ve not read it, its a very short but powerful read. 

  • G Stuart-Vail

    Well, this one’s right up my dark alley.
    Who has time or energy to pay so much attention to their own inner dialog?
    (How’s that for the wrong question?)

    I wrote some time ago about implementing better practices in productivity and in thought management… I mused about how it is not unlike learning to play guitar or piano, or even learning to type.

    In all of those disciplines, focus is key. Place appropriate appendages in their proper home space (home keys) focus on the screen rather than hunting for the key with your eyes, and take the time/make the push to train your “fingers” to strike the appropriate “keys.” An objective view allows one to actually visualize the synapses and neurons re-routing to connect those appendages without changing focus. And it is an effort. Rhythm and speed come in time.

    The metaphor here is applied to self-management of course, so the fingers and keys might be for certain thoughts and actions – like cueing up better questions.

    Do you know any “Natural Born Typists”? Nope, no doubt they were trained.

  • Mary F. Allen

    This is a great topic. Thanks for the affirmation. God was just dealing with me on this during a particularly difficult week.  He also reminded me that he has hedged me in so that I can only go in His timing. To me that corresponds with your advice and I ask “How do I better line up with His will?”  I concentrate on the specifics of improvement rather than victimizing thoughts of negativity. Again, thanks.

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  • http://www.kellycombs.com/ Kelly Combs

    I’m really looking forward to all of your interviews (but especially Tim Tebow!) Michael, it seems like you have alot going on right now with your book about to launch, travel, podcasts,blog, etc. I will pray for you & Gail. 

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Yes, we do! And my daughter’s wedding in May. Thanks for your prayers.

      • http://www.kellycombs.com/ Kelly Combs

        Launching a book and a bride in May?!? Brave man! I already prayed for you this morning, but think I may need to again. *smile* Congratulations to your family. (May is an excellent month to be married, I will celebrate my 16th wedding anniversary in May).

  • http://darensirbough.com/ Daren Sirbough

    Asking questions like “What can we learn from this experience” rather than “What’s wrong with me” will lead you to learn and move on rather then to spiral downwards to a point where you may never recover from your failures.

  • http://davidlarteyblog.wordpress.com David Lartey

    This episode was really great to listen to and especially for someone like me. I have asked the wrong question for so long in life that its has become like a default of what I ask every time. Thanks for it, I’ve begun watching my words.

  • http://profiles.google.com/deepa.m.daniels Deepa Daniels

    Thanks you Micheal, great advice! I like the podcasts. 

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  • http://christopherbattles.net/ Christopher Battles

    I loved the part about age.  I thought about those you who answer, “good” or “fine” when they are asked how they are.  Say great, wonderful, good and getting better etc.
    Thank you for this episode Michael.

  • http://www.coachingforleaders.com/ Dave Stachowiak

    Hello Michael,

    I really enjoyed this show and I think the perspective that you brought here is tremendously valuable.

    You commented during the episode on the importance and being able to communicate to another person that you understand what they are going through. I’m really confident that you appreciate all the nuances of this…but I wonder if some listeners might have missed it since you just mentioned this briefly? I thought I’d add a brief addition to what you said:

    One mistake that I see people make when trying to relate to others is to do partial listening and as soon as they hear something about the other person’s situation that sounds similar to what they have experience with, they are quick to assume that they understand the situation fully. Unfortunately, a lot of people end up stopping there and don’t really take the time to listen and attempt to more fully understand another person’s situation. Often, they start telling the other person how their past situation is similar to theirs.

    Whenever someone says something to me like, “I know EXACTLY how you feel!” one of the first things that pops into my mind is that they haven’t really done an effective job listening. After all, it’s never possible to “completely understand” or to know “exactly how I feel” – they can only ask better questions to attempt to get closer and closer to a meaningful appreciation of my feelings and the situation. I find that I have great connections and trust with the people in my life who are more willing to ask more questions than to jump in and try to immediately communicate their understanding.

    Perhaps I am splitting hairs on this, but I think the distinction is an important one and helps people build trust with each other if they are able to do this genuinely. I’d be curious what others think too!

    Great podcast as always – enjoying listening to your shows each week! Many blessings to you.

  • Mary F. Allen

    I can’t see how this podcast could fail. I’ve only recently started following you, and this is the first of your podcast I’ve heard, but it felt like quality from start to finish and was conversational rather than a lecture format. Thanks.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Mary. I appreciate that!

  • http://dalemelchin.wordpress.com/ Dale Melchin

    Michael, I have a different question.  One of my aspirations is to help people succeed at life.  Now, granted, I’m no Michael Hyatt, or John Maxwell, (yet) :-D .  But I am doing relatively better on a lot of levels than I have in years, and I know that as I keep trying, I’ll keep getting better.

    My question, is how do I relate my story to people in such a way, that I can inspire others, without appearing weak, or sappy, or sorry, or any of those other things.  I mean, when I listened to your podcast, I was like, my gosh, my brain probably would’ve exploded if I was being audited by the IRS, or I would’ve been even lost a business that was generating the money your publishing firm was.  I have had a business collapse on me, but it wasn’t of that magnitude.  However….

    How do you do it?  How do you convey it in such a way that it affects the audience in an inspiring way?  And this question isn’t just for Michael, but for anyone.  I’m desperately (don’t know if I should put it that way) trying to claw my way out of a life of mediocrity to greatness.

    Hopefully, I wasn’t too transparent, but you see my point.  Thanks for any pointers.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      That’s a great question. For starters, I personally believe that the Lord doesn’t ever give me more than I can handle (see 1 Corinthians 10:13). I believe the same will be true for you.
      In terms of how do you tell your stories in an inspiring way, I am not sure what to recommend. I think the more you read inspiring stories of people who failed (or went through tragedy) and then recovered, the more you will learn about story-telling.

      • http://dalemelchin.wordpress.com/ Dale Melchin

        Thanks, that does make sense. :-D

    • Mary F. Allen

      You said your question was to anyone, and this was something I was thinking about recently. Speak out of your experience what God has shown you, rather than thinking about how you can impact/teach others. That somehow seems to have the greatest impact on readers or on students or other audience because you’re speaking from what is important to you.

      • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

        Great point, Mary. I think that is exactly right.

    • http://dalemelchin.wordpress.com/ Dale Melchin

      I had intended the question to be on podcast 8 but the link to the comments were broke, when I put it there, so I didn’t intend for the question to be out of place, but thank you both so much for the responses.

  • Laux

    Great podcast today AND yes I like the new format.  I could tell you more informal, converstional and spend a fair amount of time speaking of your own experience which I appreciated hearing.  I could relate.

    The message was very timely for me this week. 

    Thank you,

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  • David Wallace

    Thank you for this podcast Michael. I listened to it a couple of weeks ago (still catching up on them) – and then a couple days ago had a bad day, and got frustrated – and then a short time later it hit me that that is when the wrong questions come – and it was time to ask the right question and change the dynamic. And right after that, the frustration was gone and a new outlook was there. Going through it and remembering your suggestions – helped tremendously. Thank you for your work. It’s time for me to get back to living intentionally.

  • Juan Manuel

    I know that this is off-topic but I would like to ask you, Michael, no offense intended, why you mention God so often. I respect people beliefs but, somehow, I feel sometimes you mention him when there is no need to.
    And just wonder if some listeners may feel disconnected with your messages sometimes.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I only try to mention God when I feel it is relevant to the topic at hand. Thank you for your input. I have only ever had a handful of people complain.

      • Juan Manuel

        Thank you Michael for your fast response. I truly love your podcasts. Kind regards from Europe.