Getting Unstuck: The Power of Questions

Last week we explored that place where all of us find ourselves from time to time. Stuck. Have you found yourself stuck in a mindset; reviewing the same insufficient options; worried or scared you will make the wrong decision? We have all felt stuck from time to time. When we are stuck, we have a tendency to point negative energy inward, outward, or both.

When you are feeling negative, do you typically point your emotions:

Mariliee Adams suggests in Change Your Questions Change Your Life, approaching issues from an inquiry mindset. In other words, rather than judging others or ourselves, what questions can we ask that help us to see the learning opportunities in even a bad situation? Marilee Adams suggestions we avoid questions like:

And ask questions more like:

These questions can be used for both small and large decisions. For a day-to-day staffing issue, the difference may look like this:

Initial Reaction

  1. What the hell is happening right now with Sally?
  2. Why is it so hard to communicate with her?
  3. How am I going to get her to follow through on the tasks I assigned?
  4. Is she purposely trying to sabotage the project?
  5. Am I just not able to give direction?
  6. Is it possible that I am not ready to manage someone else?
  7. Do I have what it takes for this project?
  8. Does Sally know something I don’t know?

Take a look at the list of questions above, how does the list make you feel? Notice your physiological reaction. Is your breath quick? Is your chest tight? How is your posture when you are reading those questions?

More Positively Worded Questions

  1. What assumptions am I making about Sally and my relationship?
  2. What is Sally feeling or thinking?
  3. What am I feeling or thinking?
  4. What are the goals of the project?
  5. What are the tasks that would help us meet those goals?
  6. Are there other ways to approach the project?
  7. What are Sally’s strengths?
  8. How can I match Sally’s strengths to the goals and tasks of the project?

How does the second list make you feel? Is your breath slower, Is your heart rate slower? How is your posture?

So how about for the quandary posed last week: Is it bad that I can’t think of three things that get me up in the morning professionally? If this question resonated with you, you are not alone. If you wonder if you picked the right field, the right organization, the right role, you are not alone.

Questions to ask to shift your mindset

For my client who faced the double whammy of feeling overwhelmed by the barriers to meeting client needs and undervalued by staff, the questions he asked made a big difference in his ability to see ways to address the issues in front of him and explore other possible ventures. He asked himself questions such as:

This is where emotions are evidence. If you do not feel inspired and motivated by the questions you brainstorm to solve the issue at hand but you are inspired and motivated by the questions that have you looking beyond your current position, you may be ready for a change.

For my other client, where anger and battle were her go-to emotions, she asked herself:


Think of a situation you are facing right now at work. It can be large or small. Take 10 minutes this week to pour yourself a cup of your favorite beverage. Make a list of questions you have about that situation.

What Matters Question Worksheet

Now mark those questions as positive or negative. If you noticed that you have mostly (or completely) negatively worded questions, look above for some of Marilee Adam’s inspired learner-based questions to add more positively word questions to your list.

For the next week, practice asking questions. Set them aside and revisit them. When you are satisfied that they are helpful questions, take some time to answer them. Next Monday, we will add observation and data collection to help us get unstuck and determine What Matters.

Is it bad that I can’t think of 3 things about work that get me up in the morning?

When I asked organizational leaders, what are the top 3 work related things that get them up in the morning, one respondent answered, my question with a question: “Is it bad that I can’t think of three things…?” Others, gave glib answers like coffee, knowing it is a Friday, etc. You are not alone if you find yourself struggling. Struggling to be motivated in the morning to go to work, if you dread that commute, your tasks, your coworkers, the stress. But does it mean that your current position and current organization are a bad fit? Maybe. Maybe not. How do you determine if it is? And if you determine it is a bad fit, how do you determine what’s next? If you determine it is not a bad fit, what’s next? How do you reengage?

How often do you struggle to be motivated in the morning to go to work?

Typically, when our decisions are fraught with strong emotions, we fall into a fight or flight pattern.  We may be tempted to make a quick angry decision to quell our negative feelings or we may shut down and find ourselves disconnected from our work or our organization; overwhelmed by apathy.

One of my clients found himself feeling disconnected from his organization. Every morning was a struggle. After years of working his way through his organization to roles with increasing responsibility and influence, he found his current role lonely and frustrating. He was no longer working directly with clients, but he also found it difficult to make the systemic changes required at his level of leadership.  He wasn’t sure if the barriers were surmountable and he had started to question if he was the right person to address them. His organization faced resource constraints. Those constraints and some changes in leadership had stirred up some smoldering tensions among the staff. Those tensions left him drained at the end of each day and dreading the drama each morning. One day, he was unable to find a good solution to an issue a staff member brought to him that impacted several client families. That afternoon, he overheard staff grumbling about a policy change he had instituted to address the resource constraints. His frustration bubbled over. He was ready to simply throw in the towel and move on to another endeavor. It was tempting to use the situation as a catalyst to start looking for his next venture.

Another of my clients found herself feeling combative.  Every morning was a struggle.  She and the organization were bumping up against barriers to serving their stakeholders that included competition with other organizations who could have been partners.  This feeling of frustration had been mounting for some time but came to a head when she found herself in conflict with another organizational leader at a community meeting. The meeting had been heated and had left her angry and agitated. She was ready to take that organization on head first – to call them out on their unwillingness to work with others and collaborate. She was ready for a fight.

The trouble with making decisions when we are emotional though is that high emotions cloud our thinking.  We only see exits and battles. Emotions shouldn’t be used as a decision-making process.  We don’t need to discount emotions entirely, especially for personal decisions. But our emotional responses to a situation should be treated as evidence or information that goes into decision making and not the decision itself. In order for my clients to use their strong emotions in their decision making, they needed to first shut down their fight or flight response.  To do so requires a new perspective.

Shawn Achor in his second book: Before Happiness, argues that beyond IQ, beyond even Emotional and Social Intelligence, happiness and success are dependent on “the ability to see a reality in which success is possible.”  This is not to say that we all need to ignore a negative reality. It does not mean that either of my clients should have ignored their anger, frustration, apathy, and feelings of unease. These emotional responses are real and are evidence that a decision needs to be made. What Shawn Achor argues though is that in order to move forward (in our current positions or in new endeavors) we need to know that we have agency in changing that reality (or at least our role in it).  Success, according to Achor, is “not just about how much intelligence you have; it is about how much of your intelligence you believe you can use.” It requires us to use our IQ, our emotional, and our social intelligence, but in order to do so successfully, we need to change the frame through which we see possible realities. There are many ways to change our frame: meditation, exercise, engaging in new learning opportunities, etc. One of the most direct means though is to develop our first sight and our second thoughts.

As was explained to Tiffany Aching in Terry Prachett’s hilarious book: Wee Free Men:  “First Sight is when you see what’s really there, not what your heid tells you ought to be there.” Tiffany later gives an example of second thoughts: “But she was aware of hundreds of nervous faces in the shadows. How you deal with this is going to be important, said her Second Thoughts.” As a leader, you are good at providing first sight and second thoughts for others. You see the possibilities for your stakeholders, your staff, your community. You step back and think about your approach before you act. It is what has gotten you to where you are in your career. What can be tricky is seeing those possibilities for yourself or when yours and others’ emotions are running high.

Find some time this week to take 10 minutes to have a cup of tea, coffee, a glass of wine, a beer…(whatever your favorite beverage is) with yourself. Reflect on (and jot down) the times when you have experienced negative emotions, what options did you see? When you were experiencing positive emotions, what options did you see? Was there a difference based on your mood in the number of options you perceived, the quality of the options, the creativity in the options?

Observing Emotions Worksheet

Next Monday, we will explore asking questions as a means to shift our perspective and the options we see as available to us.

You Are Not Alone: Exploring What Matters

You are not alone. It can feel that way when you are running through today’s to do list while racing to that first breakfast meeting; when you wake up in the middle of the night remembering that difficult conversation; when you stay late going over the budget or finishing a proposal hoping you have enough funding for your staff. But you are not alone.

It can feel that way when you are

“Wondering if I really have what it takes”

“Feeling like I’m never doing enough”

It can feel that way when you think:

“There are times that I have ABSOLUTELY NO CLUE what I’m doing and there is no real playbook to help me figure it out”


“I am an imposter”

You are not alone. Everyone feels overwhelmed, under skilled, lost, fake…from time to time.

Do you struggle with feeling like you or your work is not enough?

These four quotes are just a sampling of the dozens of fears expressed by smart, dedicated, and competent non-profit, government agency, and philanthropic leaders answering a survey I sent out in February asking, in part, about what keeps them up at night. In the work that I do with scores of organizations, I get to hear about leaders’ passions and fears.

We, as humans, all want to know that what we do matters. We all want to create and contribute to what matters, and we all want to (to a greater or lesser extent) do so in community with others. These three desires drive why we get out of bed in the morning. They also drive our fears as we tend to classify our anxieties around feeling inadequate or held back by others. Leaders surveyed echoed what I hear from them in my work about what keeps them up at night and what gets them up in the morning.

Determining what matters

Getting what matters done

Feeling like I matter, you matter, and we matter

Funding what matters

My hope with this blog is to share some of what I have learned from leaders in the civic space with you and to help you see that you are not alone. Leaders I work with have shared their tools for fostering resilience, confidence, and resourcefulness. Over the next few months, we will explore topics like:


This blog is inspired by the great work and ideas of the many leaders and organizations I have had the honor to work with over the years. I hope it will continue as a conversation and grow from the needs and ideas of those of you helping to make our civic spaces more vibrant for all. Please jump in with comments and questions below, answer polls, and share this blog with others. I will be posting each Monday morning. Start your week out with some thoughtful conversation on What Matters.