Are You Asking the Right Question? How to Know & What to Do Instead

Sometimes, when you’re confused about something, when you can’t get clear direction, it’s because you’re asking the wrong question. Here’s what I mean:

Yesterday, I was doing a reading for a long-time client I’ll call Zoe. I’ve seen Zoe through job changes, and a couple of marital separations and reconciliations, but she’s in a pickle now that beats all.

Obviously, since she’s had a couple of marital separations, it’s never been the best of marriages. Though Zoe moved out a couple of times, she always went back to Neil to take care of her 3 daughters, the last of whom recently left the nest. (And we all know how many marriages break up when the last child flies the coop, don’t we?) To make matters worse, Neil contracted a virus a few years ago, that led to huge heart problems, and is now waiting for a new heart. To complicate matters even more, Zoe’s fallen in love with a single coworker — and the feelings are reciprocated. Both of them are simultaneously deliriously in love and horrified because of the situation. Oh, and did I mention that Zoe’s a devout Catholic, so divorce is out of the question?

Zoe’s been calling to talk, to explore what is the right thing to do. Obviously, the ‘right’ thing is to take care of her ailing husband (who has about a 50% chance of surviving), but she is so miserable at home that she can’t shut down the budding relationship. And divorce is even beginning to look like a viable option.

When I read for clients, I pretty much get answers to the questions they’re asking. That is the way they are focusing my attention, and so that is the information that comes through. So if my client asks me, should I leave my husband?, I ask her to clarify what she hopes to get by doing that. Then I give her the probability of getting the result she desires by taking the action she proposes. She decides whether to take the proposed action. (I never tell anyone what to do.) Sometimes it’s obvious — what you propose is highly unlikely to get what you want — and sometimes it’s unclear, a 50/50ish result.

This was the sort of thing we were doing yesterday — and it’s the sort of thing we’ve done before. She seemed to be going around and around the same subject, with the same emotional and thought patterns. But somehow, yesterday, Zoe cried out in anguish, “How the hell did I get here?”

And all of a sudden I ‘got’ that the problem had started very early in the marriage, when Neil, wanting to make Zoe happy, had agreed to move closer to her family. To me, Zoe protested that this made no sense to her as the main problem in her marriage. But it turned out that the move meant taking a lower paying job, which he didn’t like as much as his old one, as well as moving away from his own birth family, to whom he was very close. Though on the surface, everything seemed the same, Neil had never forgiven her for this, nor had he forgiven himself for agreeing to it. He had mentioned his regret (but not his slowly simmering anger) occasionally over the next 25 years, but Zoe had just sort of let that go.

Now that Zoe knew the root cause of their problems, she had something she could do to change things. She could bring it up. She could tell him she appreciated his sacrifice. She could understand and forgive the many small ways he’d been mean to her. She could apologize. She could ask him to forgive her. She could ask him to forgive himself. He may or may not forgive her or himself, but at least she can have more compassion for both of them.

The lesson here is that if you’re not getting a clear solution to a problem, then you’re asking the wrong question. This is especially true of a dilemma, which is a problem with only 2 options for answers. Here are a few questions to ask to get unstuck:

  • What is the deeper nature of this problem?
  • What do I really want?’ (rather than ‘what do I think I can have?’)
  • How did I get here?
  • Does this issue remind me of any other issue I’ve faced? How is it similar? How is it different? 
  • What am I trying to learn from this situation? What is my higher self (or God or the Universe or whatever nominalization you want) trying to teach me? (And there may be more than one lesson.) 
  • What other options are out there?
  • Is this even my lesson — or am I just helping someone else learn?

I’m sure you have questions that can be added to this list. Post them here, or send them to me privately — I’d love to hear them.

Hollis Polk is a personal coach (, who has been helping people create lives they love for 15 years, using neurolinguistic & hypnotherapy techniques, decision science, clairvoyance & the common sense learned in 20+ years of business. She is an NLP Master Practitioner, hypnotherapist & has a BSE in engineering from Princeton & a Harvard MBA. She is also a successful real estate broker, investor & business owner.