Every day I picked my preschooler up from school and asked him the same question: “Hey, what did you do today?”
Every day I got the same response: Silence.
As a researcher, I’ve learned that the quality of the answers we get is usually proportionate to the quality of the questions we ask.
I acknowledged that I was probably asking my toddler a lousy question.
If you follow my “Hey, what did you do today?” question to its inevitable end, all I would’ve ever gotten was an obligatory list of the day’s events.
That’s not quite the transformational parent-child conversation I was going for, and it certainly wasn’t motivating him.
Because I study the incredible things that happen when we think about our contribution more than our achievements, I decided to start a small experiment.
Instead of asking him the same drab question and expecting a meaningful answer, I asked two new ones:
• Who did you help today?
• Who helped you today?
To my dismay, nothing happened.
But I stuck with it.
Each day for two weeks, I asked those two questions. If he didn’t answer, I wouldn’t punish him; I just repeated the questions.
One day, he answered. He proudly told me how he helped his friend build a Lego tower. The next day, he told me how he loved being the door holder as his friends lined up to head outside to the playground.
In two days, I learned more about him than in the previous six months. I discovered what he was proud of, not just what he did. I heard about how he helped others, not what his schedule was.
He seemed happier and more excited about school.
One afternoon, he got into the car, and before I could ask my questions, he said, “Dad, I can’t think of who helped me today. I’ll look harder tomorrow.”
He’d look harder tomorrow.
The most powerful outcome of a question is it directs its recipient’s attention. What we pay attention to creates our thoughts. What we think about, we become.
As leaders, interviewers, educators, and parents, we ask hundreds of questions every day to our employees, job seekers, students, and kids.
I’ve noticed that we tend to ask many questions that inadvertently undercut others’ motivation, self-worth, and sense of mattering.
What we must ask ourselves is: Are we directing people’s attention to what matters?
How to Ask More Meaningful Questions
There are two significant problems with many of the questions we ask. The first is that most questions focus on what people do instead of who they are.
The second problem is that common questions focus on where people want to go instead of where they are.
For example, a question I hear repeated in classrooms and offices is some variation of:
“What do you want to do with your life or career?”
If you follow that question to its answer, you’ll likely end up with a list of self-oriented skills, jobs, and a linear, step-by-step life or career plan. Possibilities narrow as we slowly tie our identity to a finite catalog of specialized abilities. When something happens, and our capabilities go, so too goes our sense of self.
That’s why it’s always a risky bet to tie your identity to what you do. What happens when you can’t do it?
Further, we don’t learn much about other people by asking them what they do or want to do. Anyone can copy what someone wants to do and how they want to do it; what differentiates them is why they are.
How a person’s unique strengths make a distinct contribution is what makes them different.
An alternative is: “What do you want your life or career to do for others?”
If you follow that question to its answer, you’ll end up with ideas for what kinds of problems one wants to solve, the impact they want to make, and the legacy they want to leave. The skills, jobs, and plans become mere ways to solve those problems and deliver that impact.
Possibilities expand as our identity becomes less tied to fixed abilities and more tied to the contribution we want to make. And, we learn much more about who people are and not just what they want to accomplish.
A similar, limiting question I hear a lot in the career development space is, “What’s your ideal job?” A better question is, “What kinds of problems do you want to use your strengths to solve?”
Another question I propose we banish is:
“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”
The problem with this question is not only that we’re expecting the respondent to be a mystic, but we’re also sending the message that “you’re not quite good enough…yet.”
We perpetuate an “if, then” philosophy. If I get this job or promotion, then I’ll be successful. If I go to college, then I’ll be good enough.
As a society, we tend to be great at showing people what they could become and terrible at showing people what’s good about who they already are.
Paradoxically, what’s already good about people is what will help them become who they can become.
People are more than what they might achieve in the future, and by asking questions like this, we can unintentionally erode a sense of mattering right now.
Ask Yourself Better Questions
Not only do we ask these limiting questions to others, but we also ask them of ourselves. And when we always ask ourselves questions that focus us on accomplishing and achieving things, it can be detrimental to our well-being.
Ohio State University psychologist Jennifer Crocker and colleagues have repeatedly found through longitudinal studies that people who set more self-image goals (goals made to enhance one’s status) experienced increased anxiety, depression, and disconnection from others than those who pursue more of what the researchers called compassionate goals (goals set for the benefit of others).
When we direct our and others’ attention to what they can contribute, we cultivate mattering, and I believe we, our schools, organizations, and society will be better for it.