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On a very basic level, we think by asking and answering questions of ourselves.

See, right there, I made an assertion. Your brain immediately responded to it by asking a question. “Is he right?” “What does that mean?” “Why did he begin his blog that way?”

Whatever that question was, it was an illustration of the way our brains work: we’re constantly forming and testing hypotheses about the world. We’re always asking questions, then evaluating the evidence for what we think are valid answers.

It’s such a basic part of the way we think, that we barely even notice it. Even after our attention is called to it, we’re automatically doing it. Listen in on your own thought process right now, and you’ll see: right now you’re asking yourself “Really? Is he right? Am I doing this right now? Woah, how did he know that?”

(Spoiler: it’s not because I can read minds.)

This basic question-and-answer format forms such a fundamental part of our neuropsychology, our process of perception and reasoning, that we often forget that the answers we receive to any given question often depend strongly on the question itself.

What do I mean by this?

Let’s take this blog for example.

If you’ve been following the Facebook page of Dr. Glenn Doyle, and reading the comments that pop up whenever I post a link to a new entry here on Use Your Damn Skills, you may have noticed that there is a wide range of reactions people have had to some entries.

Some people have said, “AMEN! THANK YOU!”

Some have said, “I think you’re full of it, Doc.”

Some have said, “You need to get right with Jesus.”

Some have said, “This is perfectly applicable to my life right now.”

Some have said…well, you get the idea.

Partly, the diverse reactions to my writing have been because people approach the subjects about which I write— self-esteem, relationships, personal growth— from very different perspectives. Some people think all this personal development stuff is crap. Some people think it’s the key to the next step in their evolution. Some people approach personal development materials with skepticism because they’ve heard bad things about the self-help industry from the media. Some people believe self-help runs counter to what they’ve been taught from their spiritual tradition.

The way people arrive at such different perspectives, and such different reactions? They ask radically different questions.

Same material, mind you. It’s still the same blog, whatever your approach to it, or personal development in general, is. But your reaction depends almost entirely on the questions you ask yourself about that material.

The person who asks, “How is this applicable to me?” often has a different reaction than the person who asks, “What would my mom and dad (or my spouse, or my high school football coach, or my ex) say about this material?”

The person who asks, “In what was does this material potentially contradict what I’ve been taught in my spiritual tradition?” will have a different reaction from the person who asks, “In what way does this complement what I’ve been taught in my spiritual tradition?”

The person who asks, “Even if I don’t agree with everything this guy says, is there anything useful here for me?” will have a different reaction than the person who asks, “Since that part of what he wrote doesn’t apply to me, how can he possibly have anything useful to say?”

I’m not the first personal development or “self help” writer to point out the significance of questions. The reason why is because asking better questions is so essential to living a better life,. Real self-improvement is impossible without learning to ask questions that are more useful, more empowering, more beautiful than the questions we’ve seen asking.

See, this is why I love even the people who show up in my comments with negative things to say. Every time I post a blog, I’m putting something out there for you, my readers, to chew on, think about, ask questions about. When commenters respond, we get to see the questions they’ve clearly asked themselves about this material— and we get to observe the roads down which certain questions take us, as opposed to others.

People will show you exactly who they are— and what questions they like to ask— in the comments.

“How empty is the glass?”

“How full is the glass?”

No matter what the situation, how much pain is present, how much struggle, how much frustration, how much loss is involved: there is a productive question that can be asked about it.

That is, a better question that will lead to a better answer.

What kinds of questions do you like to ask? Are they helpful? Do they make you feel better, or worse? Do they open up possibilities, or shut them down?

Our brains will always, always answer the questions we ask it. It’s on us to make them good ones.

One thought on “Be careful what you ask.

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