Active Questions As A Way To Trigger Change

Have you ever wondered why so many people are unhappy with where they are even though when compared with others they should feel happy and lucky? Have you ever wondered what it takes to make a positive and lasting change for yourself and others? In fact, have you ever felt that things go bad for you, other people are trying to hurt you, your boss is an idiot, your team mates don’t appreciate you enough, your kids are purposefully getting on your nerves, and generally the universe conspires against you? Well, it may not be the universe who fights you, it might be you fighting yourself.

It is about mindset and attitude

As you can expect being happy is a matter of personal preference. Even in the most difficult situations you can still chose to be happy and positive about life. I will never forget my experience from rural Kenya when visiting some of the villages when the locals had to walk many miles to get fresh water, with no electricity, really harsh environment, very little to live on and still, they were smiling, working together, their kids truly appreciating every little thing in life. When I came back from that trip many people commented on changes in my behavior. I guess I just realized how lucky I’m that I live in the middle of Europe and that life is actually good.

Considering the fact that I was rather depressed youngster and always worried about something and today I would define myself as an eternal optimist and always positive person I strongly believe you can learn to be happy. Just make these little habits your daily routine:

  • Always see the silver lining on any problem you encounter – believe me, there always is something positive you can take from any experience. If it comes to worst there are at least some lessons learned that will help you in the future.
  • Always assume that others mean well and work to the best of their abilities – assuming anything is never particularly smart, but if you have to, assume that the other person means well. What’s the point of thinking that everyone you meet is trying to screw you or is lazy or just trying to use you all the time? Life is much more enjoyable when you learn to trust people. Of course you don’t want to let other people actually walk over you but very few really want to, so why to let that influence how you feel about others? And if someone really does you harm make sure that you learn from it and don’t allow him to repeat that. You know, “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me” type of stuff.
  • Always enjoy the small wins and learn to appreciate details – you don’t need a big promotion or win a lottery to appreciate what you’ve got. Just learn to pay attention to small details you encounter every single day. Did you just had a stroke of luck and got home in ten minutes because of no traffic? Nice! Is there your favorite movie on TV tonight? Excellent! Did just your boss thanked you for a good job? Superb! There are so many things that go well for you, just learn to recognize them and appreciated.
  • Always keep smiling and use positive vocabulary – as a student of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) I learned quickly enough how powerful words really are. If you keep telling yourself that things go always wrong, people are after you, life is bad, guess what? Things will really go always wrong, people will not like your presence and life will be bad. The story we tell ourselves in our heads is reflecting on our mood, on body language, and on the way how we interact with our environment. If you keep telling yourself that things are great, given time, they will be. And the funny thing is they don’t even need to change. What will change is you, your attitude, and your view of the world. Ultimately, you are the only person you have control over.

The moment you are in a leadership role the importance of positive attitude cannot be overstated. As John C. Maxwell writes in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership “Attitude is one of the most contagious qualities a human being possesses. People with good attitudes tend to make people around them feel more positive. Those with a terrible attitude tend to bring others down.” So if you want to get independent and objective feedback on what your attitude is just look at your team. Are they positive and upbeat, seeing obstacles as a way to learn and opportunity to shine or do they blame the world around them for their mishaps? They are an excellent mirror to your own attitude and to leadership you provide.

Passive versus active questions

It sounds simple but not easy. So what tools do you have at your disposal to really get where you want to be? What can you do to create these wins, finish your goals, and see a visible progress to be able to feel good about yourself? I recently finished reading Triggers: Sparking positive change and making it last by Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter and I found it very helpful to learn some tools and ways to trigger a change in yourself and to release your full potential. Specifically, I love the concept of active questions.

Goldsmith and Reiter introduce concept of passive and active questions. Passive questions are essentially describing a static condition and thus don’t have the power to trigger change:

  • “Do you have clear goals?”
  • “Do you know what you want in life?”
  • “Did you exercise as you promised?”
  • “Do you know what company strategy is?”

When you think about these questions you realize a tendency of blaming others or the environment for negative outcomes:

  • “My boss didn’t give me clear goals.”
  • “My parents want me to marry and settle down.”
  • “It was a crazy day and there wasn’t time to exercise.”
  • “We don’t have strategy. My manager never told me. CEO needs to come up with a better plan.”

You can see that with answers like these you are voluntarily giving the power to influence your own life to other people. You are losing influence and you are blaming others for it. This of course leads to you feeling miserable and not in control.

On the other side are the active questions. These are questions that force you to think about how you personally can impact the world around you, how you personally can influence what is happing to you. Just consider the previous questions reworded like this:

  • “Did I do my best to have clear goals?”
  • “Did I do my best to figure out what I want from life?”
  • “Did I do my best to exercise today?”
  • “Did I do my best to learn what company strategy is?”

You are moving the action from others (who are not under your control) to the only human being you have 100% influence over = you. “Did I do my best to exercise today? Hmm, I guess not, since I missed my usual workout in the morning and didn’t bother to figure out an alternative plan. I have some time now, so here I go!”

Goldsmith has introduced a very simple way to help you trigger a change in yourself. I have used the table below for couple of weeks to find out what my real priorities are and to push myself focus on what really matters. Every evening I would rate myself from 0 to 10 on whether I did my best in several categories I deemed important at the time. You can see that I very deliberately put there some tangible goals but also some questions more targeted towards my attitude. It sounds simple, but I can tell you it is not easy to see every evening how little you do on things you thought are important. As Goldsmith says “we may not hit our goals every time but there is no excuse for not trying,” and I was amazed how little I was trying on some of the areas.

Did I do my best?

So how does it come all together?

The active questions are a great way how to realize what your inner motivation is, how self-disciplined you are and can help you improve your self-discipline by reminding you what is important. If this exercise itself is not enough, realistically it may not be, it is a good idea to get a coach who will help you through this tough time by holding you accountable to your words.

The key ingredient to be able to change is not only to know what you want to achieve but to realize that they only way you can trigger a positive change is with a positive attitude. And if you are in a leadership role your attitude is the most important tool you have for influencing your team.


Have you ever worked with the active questions? What is your take on the importance of positive attitude and how do you think it varies across cultures?

Photo: geralt /

Categories: Leadership

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1 reply


  1. How To Make Better Agreements With Yourself – The Geeky Leader

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