What would you be doing in your life if you had the choice to do something different? What do you think is blocking you from doing these different things? Now think of anything that is difficult for you in your life and ask yourself this: What could make this easier?
Questions. They ignite the cortex in our brains and stimulate our subconscious even when they have no answer. One of the tricks many writers know is that if you leave your readers with a question, the substance of the piece will linger in their minds longer and create a more lasting memory of its content. Seasoned teachers also know the power of the question versus the statement. Rather than telling your third graders the temperature of the sun and its distance from the earth, a question like, “Think about the hottest day you’ve ever experienced. Now, how hot do you think the sun is?” will be much more powerful and generate lots of brainstormy thoughts that can turn into new avenues of educational exploration.
Meet Dr. Robert Maurer. He likes questions. Small ones. According to him, the smaller the better.
Dr. Robert Maurer is the director of Behavioral Sciences at UCLA Medical Center and the author of One Small Step Can Change Your Life. Maurer is a champion of the Japanese philosophy of kaizen, the two thousand-year-old wisdom of Tao Te Ching that says “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Whether it’s business, personal relationships or health, Maurer has been able to illustrate that small steps and small questions generally work more effectively than big, innovative implemented changes. Some of his small questions and small steps are so small as to be almost ridiculous. For the person who wants to lose weight, for example, he might recommend that first that person ask themselves what small thing could I do to move my body just one minute a day? Following weeks of just asking oneself that question he might follow up by simply suggesting to them that they stand on a treadmill for 5 minutes a day. After about a month, he’d suggest that the individual walk at a slow pace for one minute a day. The idea that drives kaizen is that if we can train our practical brain, our cortex, to override our “fight or flight” instinct located in the amygdala, the part of our brain that drives our fears, then we can slowly train ourselves to effectively alter our behavior in a manner that will have lasting results.
If you have heard Maurer speak, as I have, one of the things you will hear him say is that the world’s most successful individuals don’t describe the challenging times in their lives as stressful or anxious. Instead, they talk about them and refer to fear, which Maurer and many psychologists feel is really at the heart of all our negative human emotions. Small questions and small steps challenge fear by engaging our cortex, our rational brain, so that it overrides the fight or flight instinct in the amygdala and quashes the fear that drives these instincts.
If you don’t believe that a simple question can alter a person’s behavior, consider this story:
Every day a woman drives to work and parks in a parking lot. One day, she gets into her office and meets her colleagues in the coffee room. A coworker asks her, “What color was the car next to yours in the parking lot this morning?” She is confused and says she has no idea. The next day, the same thing plays out. The coworker asks her the color of the car she parked next to and she has no idea. A third day, the same scenario until finally, on the fourth day, the woman goes into her office, walks up to her coworker and says, “Red! Does that answer your question?!” In a matter of days, this simple question changed someone’s behavior and caused them to notice and do something they would not have done otherwise. And, you can bet that as long as that question remains live in her mind, she will absolutely notice the color of the car next to hers.
So, it’s not that we need to care about the color of the car next to ours in the parking lot, but we can alter our thought patterns through simple questions that do matter to who we are and what we want from our lives, even if they are asked and not answered. The brain likes questions because they give us something to work on and the subconscious might toy with all kinds of possible solutions while we go about our day to day.
Here are five of Dr. Maurer’s favorite questions. Try asking them without being compelled to answer and just see how that feels:
What are you happy about?
What are you excited about?
Who do you love?
Who loves you?
What are you grateful for?
It’s a brand new year here at the 52 Mondays blog. The focus of this year is change, my friends. But don’t worry that it’s too hard…we have a whole year–or more!–and we are going to take very small steps and ask lots of questions.
I’ll be on vacation next Monday, everyone, so until I get back, I wish you all much peace and thoughtfulness. What do you think about that?
TRY THIS WEEK: Choose a small, small question–a kind one– to ask yourself repeatedly throughout your days.