When it feels like there are no good answers, that may be a sign that we’re not asking useful questions. If we can frame our thinking with better questions, we can uncover better answers.
There are so many ways you can use questions to shift your emotional state, focus on what’s most important, and help you problem-solve constructively.
This article + podcast episode will help you find a framing for things you’re confused or frustrated about so you can find the path to solutions. I’ll also share how you can use better questions with students to help them reflect on their choices, as well.
You don’t have to have all the right answers, but having some great questions will get you headed down a more productive path.
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Asking better questions of students
Let’s start with student-focused examples. One of my favorite questions to ask kids who are off-task is, What should you be doing right now?
This is a helpful question you can train yourself to ask, rather than “What are you doing?” or “Why are you doing that?” It’s so funny how questions like that fly out of our mouths when we’re bewildered or annoyed because there’s no good answer. If a student tries to answer, we’re not going to like what they say anyway.
“Why are you talking? Why are you pushing him? Why are you out of your seat?” are generally not sincere questions. Now, this isn’t always true. If there’s a reply that you would accept as valid, that’s a sincere question. But often we say these things, we don’t believe there is any good reason for the student’s behavior and we don’t really want to hear the explanation. And when that’s the case, we’ll get better results from asking a better question.
“What should you be doing right now?” prompts the student to think about their choices and also think about the instructions or task you’ve given. Typically students will self-correct when asked this question, or they’ll give you an answer that shows they understand the directions, like, “I should be finishing the assignment.” You can just nod then and that’s the end of it, or say, “Do you need help getting started? Is there anything you’re stuck on?”
Occasionally kids will reply to “what should you be doing right now” with “Working, but I have to do ABC first” or “Writing, but I need to do XYZ.” I like these responses because they bridge the gap between what I need the student to do and what the student feels they need to do. It gives some insight into what’s distracting the student or causing them to make choices that aren’t aligned with my expectations. I can then say, “Ok, that’s fine” or “Can you do that after doing this?” or enter some kind of discussion that gets us both on the same page.
So, consider how asking better questions of your students can get you better results.
Instead of a kindergartener “Why is your coat on the floor?” you could ask, “Where should your coat be?”
Instead of asking a middle schooler “Why aren’t you on the right page of the website?” you could ask, “What page should you be on?”
Ask questions that prompt kids to think about their choices and the expectations, instead of questions that have no good answers and just frustrate us when kids aren’t able to respond.
Asking better questions about other people
The power of asking better questions extends far beyond just your conversations WITH students. Consider also your thoughts and conversations ABOUT students.
“Why is that kid doing that?” vs. “What need is that behavior meeting?”
“Why are they wearing that?” vs “What message or marker of identity are they trying to express through that look?”
You can apply the concept to things that annoy or confuse you about your colleagues, students’ families, and administrators. For example, “Why do they think I can just drop everything last minute and run to a meeting?” vs. “How can we change our systems so that meetings are planned in advance?”
Obviously, that’s not an easy question to answer, but it is a powerful one. It prompts you to think through why last-minute meetings keep happening and what might be done to prevent that proactively.
“What am I supposed to say to that?” in response to an accusatory parent email could become, “What is the root concern this parent has, and how can I allay that fear?” You’re now primed to stop focusing on the nitpicky stuff that’s annoyed you, and find the heart of the matter.
“How am I supposed to get my work done when people keep interrupting me?” can become, “How can I communicate my needs and set boundaries so I’m not interrupted?” or “How can I change my work routine so that I’m in a place where I’ll have fewer interruptions?”
Asking better questions of ourselves
I think the most exciting use of asking better questions comes when asking questions of ourselves, about ourselves. You can learn so much about your own needs, feelings, and thought processes when you ask yourself good questions.
Here are some examples to consider:
“Why am I so bad at this?” vs “What might help me adjust my expectations so I’m not so hard on myself?”
“How can I possibly let this go?” vs “What does it cost me to hang on, and what would I gain by releasing it?”
“Why even bother doing this?” vs “What benefits can I or other people expect from this?”
Here are my 3 favorite questions to ask myself.
1. What’s the ONE thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
“What should I focus on? Where should I start?” can become “What’s the ONE thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” That’s a question from Gary Keller in his book “The One Thing” that can help us uncover lots of great answers related to productivity and overwhelm. “What’s the ONE thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
So for example, if you’ve got a seemingly endless amount of papers to grade, find the one thing you can do that will make the rest easier or unnecessary. Maybe it’s grading the test to see what kids knew at the end of the unit, thereby making grading the previous day’s practice assignment unnecessary. Or maybe it’s getting the long essay set out of the way so you’re left with the easier, faster things to grade.
If you have a ton of emails to clear out and don’t know where to start, find the one thing you can do that makes everything else feel easier or even become unnecessary. I like to select all the emails that are clearly junk or unnecessary for me to read, based on the sender and subject line, and clear those out first. Immediately now my inbox has a ton of clutter emptied out and it’s much easier to focus on the rest.
Then I can ask the question again, “What’s the ONE thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” That might be to look at the emails that probably don’t require a response, and clear them from my inbox by sorting them into folders. This will leave me only with the emails that require a thoughtful response or action, which I can right away or put into a “to do” folder so that they’re not just cluttering up my inbox.
I’m not saying this process will be right for you — I’m just giving an example of how asking a powerful question (about one thing I can do that makes everything else easier or unnecessary) has become something I’ve internalized. I don’t go through my email haphazardly anymore or respond to messages one by one as they come in. When I sit down to go through my email, I look for approaches that help me make the job easier.
2. What would it look like if it were easy?
You’ve probably heard me say this before because it’s something I’ve been coming back to for years since I first heard it on Amy Porterfield’s podcast. It’s a wonderful question to ask whenever you are overcomplicating a task, can’t figure out where to begin, or can’t get motivated to do what you need to do.
Cleaning the house — what would it look like if it were easy? Well, I’d pick up the stuff that’s right here within my eyesight so at least there’s not so much clutter around.
Planning this unit — what would it look like if it were easy? I’d probably start by creating a broad outline of what I’ll do and fill in the details afterward.
The power of this question is that it helps you find the easy inroad to getting started. It also dials down your expectations. It helps you find a possible outcome that is not overwhelming or impossible.
3. What else might be true, and how can I learn more?
This is a question I use when I’m annoyed about a situation, confused about it, offended by something, hearing something controversial, or convinced I’m right. I find myself in all of these situations pretty regularly, so this is something I ask myself a lot!
“The parent didn’t show up for our conference — why don’t families these days care about their kids education?” is a really loaded question that doesn’t point me in any helpful direction. “What else might be true, and how can I learn more?” opens me up to other possibilities — could there be a different reason the parent was a no-show, other than them not caring about my time or their child’s learning? What can I do to get more insight as to what’s happening and how to get on the same page as this parent?
The possibilities for this question are endless and will help you uncover cognitive bias that you might otherwise be unaware of:
- The opinion piece I read online makes some pretty outrageous claims. What else might be true and how can I learn more?
- My friend is claiming that they were wronged by another one of my friends. What else might be true, and how can I learn more?
- My partner has a harmless habit that I find really annoying, and it makes no sense to me. What else might be true, and how can I learn more?
- This student keeps falling asleep in class but says everything’s fine. What else might be true, and how can I learn more?
This question can also help you refrain from jumping to conclusions or assuming the worst. Try asking yourself what else might be true when you assume that a rattle in your car’s engine must mean an expensive repair, or a summons to the principal’s office must mean you did something wrong. What else might be true, and how might you learn more?
Curiosity over judgment. Wondering about assumptions. These are always safer places to land.
There are so many ways you can use better questions to shift your emotional state, focus on what’s most important, and help you problem-solve constructively.
If you want better answers, ask better questions. Find a framing for the things you’re confused about which can help lead you to the solutions you need. You don’t have to have all the right answers, but having some great questions will get you headed down a more productive path.
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