Each of us is responsible for our own self-growth and development. Sometimes we reach out to professionals like therapists and life coaches. Other times we read books and other information about best practices for self-help.
A big part of what happens when you engage in therapy, life coaching, and other self-help techniques is learning alternative ways to think about challenges in your life. Asking yourself five specific types of questions will help you retrain your brain to build new neuropathways, encourage your brain to seek positive solutions, and achieve your goals.
Researchers at King’s College London found that a habit of prolonged negative thinking diminishes your brain’s ability to think, reason, and form memories. Learning how to ask yourself questions that encourage new positive ways of thinking, instead of repeating negative thought cycles will improve your brain’s ability to function.
These are the five types of questions we should all ask ourselves if we are serious about improving our lives: reframing questions, focusing questions, expanding questions, challenging questions, and probing questions.
The purpose of a reframing question is to look at what you are facing from a fresh perspective. “What lesson did I learn from this?” is a wonderful example of a reframing question, that you can apply to nearly anything that goes “wrong” in your life. Whether it is an obstacle from your childhood, a poor decision, or just a curveball life threw at you.
According to Zsolt Olah, “Often, without reframing the problem, you’re searching for an answer to a question that is not the right question to ask in the first place.” He also offers us some great tips you can use to help yourself learn to ask reframing questions.
- Assume nothing
- Make lots of bad ideas
- Explore solutions
Rethink the way you ask yourself questions and it will go a long way in encouraging your brain to find positive solutions. “Why did this happen to me,” encourages your brain to think like a victim, while “What did I learn,” engages parts of the brain that will move you toward growth and acceptance.
Focusing on “why” can lead to negative thinking, but asking “who and what” questions will give you a new perspective. Instead of asking something like “Why don’t people like me,” ask “what makes you think this is true.”
Reshaping the questions in this way gives you the opportunity to gain that new perspective. Stop making assumptions about what other people think and feel; you don’t know what is going on in other people’s heads.
Brainstorming can lead to lots of bad ideas, but it will open up new ideas and thought processes. Within these bad ideas, there is usually a good one that you wouldn’t have thought of without brainstorming. Give this technique a try next time there is a question you are facing.
“Regret is counterproductive. It’s looking back on a past that you can’t change. Questioning things as they occur can prevent regret in the future.” ― Colleen Hoover
Focusing questions are meant to redirect yourself that help you take steps toward action. When something bad happens, like losing your job, it is natural to get caught up in those ‘why’ questions, but they won’t help you solve the problem.
Instead, ask yourself, “What do I need to do first?” That might be to apply for unemployment or apply for new jobs. Take it another step further and ask, “What do I need to get where I truly want to be?” Maybe you realize that the job you had wasn’t fulfilling you and it is time for a new career. So the first thing you need to do might be to apply for a new job, but the second thing might be to earn a degree in a different field.
These questions are the ones you ask yourself when you need to decide on courses of action. They are also the ones that you ask when you are trying to align with new or existing goals and objectives
“If you start a day with a good question, you’ll get to have an interesting time looking for answers.” ― Alain Bremond-Torrent
Expanding questions are great to use if you like to play the ‘what if’ game. Unfortunately, when most people ask themselves ‘what if,’ they do it in a way that urges their brain to come up with negative responses. For example, ask yourself, “What would I do if I lost my job?” This might be you if your answers are:
- I would starve.
- I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills.
- I would lose everything.
The point of expanding questions is to consider how different options can lead to different solutions. How you answer them is critical to teaching your brain how to respond differently. What would happen if you lost your job? You could answer like:
- I could find an even better one without the guilt of leaving my current team/coworkers.
- I could invest in myself and open up my company.
- I could go back to school and learn new skills.
The trick here to ask the ‘what if’ questions, and formulate an answer based on what you could gain, not what you might lose. Then you keep expanding on that answer again. So, if you said, “I could invest in myself and open my own company,” you could follow that up with, “What would your company do.” The possibilities are endless if you keep expanding on your previous answer!
“He explained to me with great insistence that every question possessed a power that did not lie in the answer.” ― Elie Wiesel
It is uncomfortable to ask yourself the tough questions, but growth happens when we are uncomfortable. These types of questions are necessary because they help you understand why you believe the things that you believe. If you have a belief, for example, that the people at work don’t like you, ask yourself, “How do I know this to be true?” Your brain will only believe the things you tell it to.
David Harding explains, “In deciding how to act, it matters very much what we believe. If we believe the floor is about to give way, we should move; if we believe it is going to get dark, we should make ourselves secure and prepare to sleep. Well-judged actions should usually be congruent with our own broad self-interest, interpreted over the long run, and across our families and social networks. If our actions are not based on a good grasp and interpretation of reality, whilst we may judge them to be in our self-interest, they may well not be.”
If your belief is that no one likes you and that is going to cause you to quit a job that you otherwise like, this belief may not be in your best interest. If your belief that people don’t like you is coming from a place of limiting beliefs, assumptions, or low self-esteem, it is time to ask yourself these challenging questions to get to the root of the matter.
“Believe what you like, but don’t believe everything you read without questioning it.” ― Pauline Baynes
Probing questions will help you get even deeper into the core of your belief system. These questions combat things like assumptions, judgment, and generalizing. As people, we assume a lot of things like:
- Other people’s internal state
- Assuming cause
- Assuming equivalence
- Assuming necessity
- Assuming possibility
- Assuming comparison
We are not mind readers and anytime you say things like “They don’t like me,” ask yourself how you know that to be true. Assuming cause happens when we place cause outside of ourselves. If you say something like “My mom makes me so upset,” the probing question that you want to ask is, “How does her behavior make me feel upset?”
Sometimes, the answers to these questions might lead you to assume equivalence. You might say, “My mom yells at me all the time, therefore she doesn’t care about me.” Ask yourself if there has been a time where you yelled at someone you cared about? The answer to that is likely yes, so then how does her yelling mean she doesn’t care?
Necessity, possibility, and comparison are some common assumptions we make in our daily lives. You might say things like, “I need a job,” but have you asked yourself what would happen if you didn’t? If we tell ourselves things like, “I can’t lose weight,” several probing questions can help us learn more. What is holding you back? What would happen if you lost weight?
People also make comparisons without stating what they are comparing it to. Assuming comparison statements include one’s like, “That’s expensive,” or “That’s difficult.” Sure, going to school might be a challenge that would be deemed difficult, but compared to what? Working at a job that doesn’t pay you enough, isn’t fulfilling, and has awful hours is also difficult. You can pick your hard and asking probing questions will help you decide.
“Never question another man’s motive. His wisdom, yes, but not his motives.” ― Dwight D. Eisenhower
Asking yourself these five types of questions is a challenge, but it isn’t any harder than living life with a set of limiting beliefs and negative thinking. You can do some of this work on your own, but a therapist, or a life coach, can help guide you through this journey of self-discovery. You owe yourself the chance to rewire some things that life has taught your brain.
What was the hardest question you ever asked yourself? Let us know in the comment section below.