Have you ever had a problem you couldn't seem to solve? You probably pondered solutions over and over, maybe losing sleep. I bet you were trying to solve the wrong problem. When you can't find the answer, it is often because you are not asking the correct question.

To illustrate this, let's take the question, "How might I find a spouse?"

Just because it ends with a question mark doesn't mean it's a question. Drop "how might I," and you get a declarative statement: "Find a spouse." This could be regarded as an answer. So finding a spouse can be regarded as either an answer or a question.

But what question is "Find a spouse"" the answer to?

There could be many. Some possibilities are:

How might I get companionship?

How might I get taken care of?

How might I stop working?

How might I have (more) sex?

How might I get my parents to stop nagging me?

How might I move to a better economic situation?

How might I improve my social life?

How might I keep up with my friends?

Each of these questions, regarded as a problem, has many possible solutions. Finding a spouse is just one possible solution to each of these. In actuality, it may not be a very good solution to any of these problems.

Experience has shown me that one of the main causes of losing sleep over a problem is that we think we are dealing with a question when in fact we are dealing with an answer (a solution) that turns out not to be a good fit to our actual problem.

A way around this dilemma is to ask, "What would it do for me if I solved this problem?" The answer to this can then be converted into a new, more generative question.

If I believe that I want a spouse to satisfy my need for companionship, the real problem (question) is, "How might I find companionship?"

Finding a spouse now becomes simply one of many possible ways to find companionship. By changing the question, I have altered my point of view and dramatically expanded the number of possible solutions.

The situation can be illustrated diagrammatically as such:

Because I haven't been able to find a spouse thus far, I can take a different tack: I can ask what finding a spouse would do for me.

I believe it would give me companionship. So, the new question is, "How might I get companionship?" The diagram below shows possible answers.

I am no longer stuck with trying to find a spouse. It's that simple.

Identifying what you expect from the solution to the problem you're stuck on brings you to a higher level and, ultimately, a better question.

Changing the question is often enough to lead to a satisfactory resolution and to make the original difficulty disappear. In this example, if I figure out how to get companionship without getting married, the issue of finding a spouse becomes moot.

This procedure can be repeated starting at the higher level. If the question of how I might find companionship becomes difficult to solve, I would ask,"What would it do for me if I found companionship?"

Possible answers might be:

I would feel less bored.

I would get social stimulation.

I would get intellectual stimulation.

I would feel less lonely.

I would feel more secure.

By choosing the one that seems most resonant (I would feel less lonely) and converting it into a question, I get a new question. "How might I feel less lonely?" is a long way from the original question of, "How do I find a spouse?"

Many married people feel lonely within their marriages, so clearly even solving the original problem (finding a spouse) might not solve my actual problem of being lonely.

Now, the situation looks like this:

Use this procedure whenever you find yourself stuck and losing sleep over an issue. Often, it can open up a wide range of new solutions. The original problem disappears, and the way to proceed is immediately obvious.

For this to work, though, you need to be honest enough not to hang on to the original question, no matter how comfortable you have become with it. There is a tendency to rationalize our dysfunctional behavior with excuses. Remember, we shy away from labeling them as excuses; instead we call them reasons. Of course, they are goooood reasons, right?

There isn't always a single answer to the question, "How would I benefit if I had a solution to my problem?" It is simply a matter of using a different how-might-I question and repeating this procedure until you feel the Aha! that comes from recognizing your actual issue.

The Achievement Habit This adapted excerpt comes from the book, The Achievement Habit, by Bernard Roth. Copyright © 2015 by Bernard Roth. Reprinted with permission of HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.


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