May 19, 2014 by Angus
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The Power of Questions

How many of us have had an initial worry thought pop into our heads which then turned into a run-away train that we were still on 30 minutes later?

  • What if I don’t get that report done on time?
  • What will my boss say?
  • What will I do if I lose my job?
  • If I lose my job how long will my partner stay with me if I’m broke and unemployed or unemployable?
  • What will I do if I can’t pay my rent/mortgage?

Most of us have been caught up in a worry chain from time to time. Some of us get caught up in them many times a day.

Most of these chains consist of questions, the answers to which (or lack of) prompt other threatening questions. Our desire to find anxiety reducing answers often just uncovers more threatening questions and the cycle can continue.

The chain starts with the first question and the concept of questions and our interaction with them is interesting. We have been conditioned from childhood to answer any questions which are asked of us. First from parents and then from other authority figures.

Failure to answer them may lead to direct punishment or withdrawal of affection so as we grow we can find ourselves automatically treating questions with great respect whether they come from others or from inside our own heads.

The trouble with these types of questions is they bound our attentional focus in very narrow ways. All our thought processes are now imprisoned by searching for a reaction to the threatening question in front of us.

Space for other perspectives seems to disappear or was never in our awareness to begin with. Our attentional focus creates the story of our lives.

We think we are looking at the world through binoculars but maybe we are largely making up meaning through our filters.

Try this for an exercise:

Look around the room you are in… Look behind you… What is the first thing you see?

If you are in a familiar room you may recognise any object you encounter.

In a less familiar room or office you may notice something that you haven’t noticed before.

To test this further, ask yourself if at the beginning of the day today you were asked to describe the room in immense detail, would all these objects you are viewing make it on the list or would you miss some of them.

I often do this exercise with clients and point out a particular blue box on top of a cupboard. This blue box is very big and could hold perhaps 10 reams of paper. When you look at it is very striking with a very bright, translucent shade of blue. Almost invariably the client will say they have never noticed it before, even ones who have been coming in to see me for some time.

As far as their experience of the room, the world, and their life in general is concerned THAT BOX DIDN’T EXIST. However, it was 2 metres from them in plain sight beaming bright blue in an otherwise predominantly white room.

Their attentional focus has always been on other things such as what they want to talk about or their emotional state or what they will be doing later or many other possible foci of attention. Their life and their reality did not have the blue box in it, so it didn’t exist while paradoxically it was right in front of them.

QUESTIONS ARE POWERFUL ATTENTIONAL FOCUS HIJACKERS

I have had many clients who after having time off work due to an episode of major depression or a clinical level of anxiety being terrified of returning to work.

When asked what some of the things that terrify them about the prospect of returning to work, often at the top of the list is being concerned what questions co-workers might ask them about their absence.

Regardless of how inappropriate a question may be, many of us feel impelled to answer, trying to answer in a way to satisfy the curiosity of the questioner, without any awareness of our own needs to feel emotionally safe. The unconscious power of questions is everywhere if we care to notice.

Many times the client hasn’t considered that they do not need to actually answer the potential questions by co-workers in the way that the co-worker may wish for.

The client almost subconsciously assumes that if they are asked where they have been for the last few months they have to give a variation of “I have had major depression and haven’t been able to function or see a way through for the last few months and have felt weak and vulnerable”.

It is as if they are asked to psychologically take all their clothes off in public then they must obey, like an injection of truth serum, and since this is a terrifying prospect they’d rather avoid going back to work.

They have often never considered that they could answer truthfully, yet with boundaries in place. Saying “I just needed some time off and now I’m ready to get back into it” is one approach.

Using the power of questions as a response by asking the questioner at the earliest opportunity, a question related to their own life experience can deflect the conversation to a more emotionally safe level.

And the last resort of replying “hey, great to see you, I’ve got to (get back to it; get a drink; go to the toilet; make a phone call) but I hope we can catch up more at lunch”.

Ironically, almost universally their fears are not realised when they find most people are just happy to see a familiar face and are genuinely pleased to just see them back! Being safe and being truthful do not have to be mutually exclusive. We don’t necessarily have to compromise our principles to remain safe.

Many of us never realise that the conditioned power of questions may be used as powerful attentional focus mechanisms, and might be used for our own psychological health, growth, and well-being.

Another common scenario I have seen are clients who have had an extremely challenging relationship of a long standing nature with a member of their family. They are about to have to be in their presence for an important shared event and this had led to a worry chain that had created intense anxiety and insomnia for a number of weeks with the event still many months ahead.

The prospect of ongoing suffering seemed certain in the continued lead up to the event. An example of part of a worry chain seen many times in this situation:

  • If I am attacked verbally, will people think that there must be good reason for it?
  • What if we have a big argument in front of everyone?
  • What if I ruin the event for everyone by the way I handle the confrontation?
  • Will my reputation be permanently tarnished if I appear to act badly?

Asking a client to search for a question that by answering effectively could enhance quality of life is often a powerful use of questions. I call these questions Meaning Making questions.

We start with a big bird’s eye question and work our way down. The usual starting question might be “how can I create the most meaningful experience for myself when I am encountering XYZ?”. There is no prize and no scale. It is all about process.

A recent client living through the example above asked the question: “How can I create the most meaningful experience and memories for myself at the (family event)?”.

Within a few minutes, this client was planning on how she could spend time with little seen nieces and nephews as well as visit famous tourist attractions available where the family event was being held. They also added a few days before and after the event to travel to nearby places which were always on their “bucket list”.

The change in posture, vocal tone and mood shifted in a few minutes after months of misery reacting to other disempowering questions. The family member (or blue box!) was still there but started to become more irrelevant…

Try reauthoring your life with new Meaning Making questions for a week and see what happens. 🙂

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