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Senior Correspondent

When Answers Are Unclear, Ask, “What’s Possible?”

When Answers Are Unclear, Ask, “What’s Possible?”


When asked what I have learned in more than 20 years in business, my standard response is simple: 'ya never know.  These are the words I say several times a day as people and circumstances continuously surprise and, often, delight me.

As a teacher and business coach, I thrive on learning and applying knowledge. The quest to become an expert in my field has had both an upside and a downside. The upside — I understood myself, early on, to be a lifelong learner. The downside — the expectation on the part of others, and sometimes myself, has been that I have all the answers.

While I pride myself on my inventory of knowledge and the ability to take action or influence action from that knowledge base, being cast in the role of "Answer Woman" is less to my liking. 

I prefer to just admit that I may not know the answer and, from that place of not knowing, ask useful questions to gain a more complete understanding of the situation before developing solutions and action plans.

Our coaches consider high-gain questions to be an important part of their tool kit. High-gain questions are questions that cannot be answered with a yes or no, but instead cause others to think differently and often better about a situation.

In her book “Change Your Questions, Change Your Life”, Marilee Adams offers a series of high-gain questions to help when you’re feeling stuck.  Here's the list:

  1. What do I want?
  2. What are my choices?
  3. What assumptions am I making?
  4. What am I responsible for?
  5. How else can I think about this?
  6. What are the other people involved/impacted by this thinking, feeling, and wanting?
  7. What am I missing or avoiding?
  8. What can I learn?
  9. What action steps make the most sense?
  10. What questions should I ask myself or others?
  11. How can I turn this into a win-win?
  12. What's possible?

Hanging out in a state of 'ya never know can be a little uncomfortable at first, but once you become more comfortable with your discomfort, asking yourself some high-gain questions becomes a great jumping off point to develop solid action plans and gain traction in implementing them. We can only acquire so much knowledge, and it never seems to be sufficient for the complexities of today's workplaces. Learning how to ask good questions can transform your career, your business and your life.   

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