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Change Your Questions, Change Your LifeChange Your Questions, Change Your Life:  10 Powerful Tools for Life and Work. Marilee Adams. 2009. Berrett-Koehler.  195 pages.

Since I will be attending the conference on Education and the Inquiring Mindset in Princeton next week, I thought now would be a great time to review the book by the woman behind the conference.  In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Marilee Adams is a business acquaintance and friend of mine.

Having the right answers is where it’s at these days, isn’t it?  It’s the people who have the answers who make the money, give the interviews, write the books, lead the pack.  When you attend a corporate presentation, usually you see the executive standing on stage with a microphone, going through a PowerPoint presentation that was prepared in advance to lay out the executive’s answers:  these are the facts, here is the plan, this is how we’ll make it work.  After the presentation comes the Q&A, where the “A” is often a recapitulation of a point made in the presentation.  Frequently, the staff person asking the question isn’t mic’ed, nor is the question repeated, with the result that everyone hears an answer without knowing quite what the question was.  The goal of the event is to provide enough answers so that there will be no more questions, and everyone can go back to work.

Change Your Questions, Change Your Life turns the Q&A model on its head, suggesting that the questions are really the most important part of the process.  As Adams asks, “How can you get the best answers without the best questions?”  Consequently, she advocates the use of “question thinking,” which she describes as “a system of skills and tools using questions to expand how you approach virtually any situation.”

Key to the goal of asking the “best questions” is distinguishing between those questions that arise out of a “Judger” mindset (which involves reacting judgmentally and seeking to assign blame) and those that arise from the “Learner” mindset (which involves making thoughtful choices and seeking win-win solutions).  Adams provides a “Choice Map” to illustrate the difference between the two approaches.  The Choice Map (which is also available for download from the Inquiry Institute website) is proffered as a job aid to facilitate the range of conflicts a reader might confront.

Adams presents her principles and tools by means of a fictional narrative.  Ben, the narrator, is struggling as a new leader, but begins working with an executive coach who introduces him to the principles of Question Thinking and Judger vs. Learner Mindset, as well as the various tools for implementing these principles.  As in all fables, the hero ultimately lives happily ever after:  by the end of the book, Ben is inducted into his coach’s Learner Hall of Fame, gets a promotion, and is appointed to head the leadership team that will inculcate Question Thinking throughout the company.  And his rocky marriage is back on track, to boot!

While the story conceit is probably not to every reader’s taste, it provides the advantage of both explaining a concept, then illustrating how it might be put into practice.  The concepts are described in a coherent and accessible fashion, with the occasional reference to relevant research.

While the concepts of question thinking and Judger/Learner mindsets in the context of personal relationships is an ongoing topic of the book, the greater emphasis is on their usefulness in the workplace.  Several techniques for applying question thinking to enhance the overall effectiveness of a workgroup are described.  I found Q-storming, a variation on brainstorming, particularly compelling.

“The 10 Tools of Question Thinking” are summarized at the end of the book as an appendix.  Some might be better labeled as “techniques” (e.g, “Empower Your Observer”; others as “exercises” (“Distinguish Learner and Judger Mindsets”).  All clearly represent helpful activities for those seeking to change their perspective and address conflict more positively.

Overall, the part of the book that most speaks to me is the discussion of Learner and Judger.  I have often found myself in the position of trying to get Party A to consider Opposing Party B’s perspective on a conflict.  Adams seems to back me up on that approach (which, of course, I find gratifying!).  More importantly, though, the book gives me some insights and tools that will help me leverage my natural inclination to be more effective in the workplace.