Questions are the Answers

'I'd like to open the floor to questions, but my attorneys have advised me not to.'


In my teens I learnt the art of answering a question without answering it. And I have my father to thank for that. After school/college hours I would often stay out late meandering with friends and come home to a fuming father. He would invariably be found pacing up and down the balcony like a tiger pretty much in disagreement with its cage, about to express its opinion in no uncertain terms.  My entry into the house would typically invite his opening salvo of a deep “hmmm” followed by the statement “ you are late” . To which I would answer “yeah I got late” and with a deftness of a Maradona on grease, dodge quickly into the bathroom before he could recover and get into his middle game of the more dangerous questions. A life time spent evading the answer to nasty questions has given me a deep appreciation of the rapier-like quality of questions.

But there is also a singular beauty to questions.

I had this colleague, more of a mentor and coach, whose ability to uncover the fundamentals of any situation was scintillating. I remember one instance when I had slaved day and night to build  what I thought was a clever model and Goto market strategies for my business. I had thought through all possibilities and covered, in my calculation, every possible angle the Board might take. I turned to him for review, fairly confident that he would give it a green signal.  After listening to me patiently, he asked ‘Everything you have stated in your model I can do in-house as your client, provided I have the capital. Just assume people have the access to capital. ? And why would I be compelled to buy from you?’ It was such a fundamental question. In my excitement about the details of the solution and the way I was able to synchronize all the moving parts I had  got carried away with the elegance of the solution. His ability to ask the right question jolted me back to reality and back to the drawing board. That is the power of good questions- they change perspective.

I have over the years, apart from working sedulously at collecting grey hair, also worked at honing my ability to ask the right questions.  Once,  my colleagues at Vyaktitva and I worked on a project that required us to teach facilitators and coaches how to ask questions that would help them generate insights/realizations in their audience.

In that project we had to get the audience of facilitators and future coaches to experience the power of the right question; A case in point was to create the realization, for instance, that Differentiation based on performance is a universal underlying truth not a perverse corporate ploy to deprive people of their due. We did this by using four kinds of questions:

  • Factual: Gets Facts/feelings etc. around the situation on the table including what has not been explicitly stated
    • g. Establish the basis for Differentiation as a way of life
    • Example :All of you have appeared for exams in every grade. Did all of you in the class get the same marks?
  • Exploring: Pushes the person to examine options/alternatives; compare/contrast
    • g. Explore the possibility of application of Differentiation in other walks of life
    • Example: Have you faced situations in life where you were required to differentiate?
  • Establishing: Gets the person to arrive at and begin to accept the logic of the solution
    • g. Converge to /Arrive at the universal nature of Differentiation
    • Example: How do you declare a winner amongst contestants in an Olympic freestyle swimming competition?
  • Implication: Gets the person to see the absurdity or non-starting nature of other alternatives or through pros and cons, strengthen the conclusion
    • g. Reinforce or strengthen the universal nature of Differentiation
    • Example: What would happen if you declared both contestants of a near photo finish as winners?

Over time and years of application I have found these four kinds of questions to be a powerful method to uncover basic truths and to get a person to reflect and arrive at key realizations that change perspectives and, at times ,attitudes

In all the work I do with people, if there is one underlying thread, it is Questions. Good questions are like a lever that help do the heavy lifting of discovering the truth and gaining insights. Given the fact that I am a life member of the lazy sods association, I love my questions. Let the other fellow do all the heavy lifting of finding the answers.

But jokes apart, good questions teach, and I have often found these Four categories of questions Factual, Exploring, Establishing and Implication extremely useful in both facilitation as well as in my Coaching work. Used well I have found that they hold my hand and lead me to insights and give the answers I seek for the many conundrums of life.

It is all about the questions, not so much about the answers.



Wodehouse & Facilitation

win win


I discovered and got addictively hooked to P G Wodehouse in my school days. I would spend hours on end, sitting in one corner of the house, cackling over his humor much to the consternation of my mother who would wonder if I was following in the footsteps of the family… loony in short. Justifiably so, she still has serious doubts about my sanity. However, there is, for me, nothing like PGW to raise my spirits at the end of some days, when life has dragged me inexorably through the dreary desert sands of dead habit of earning a living (sorry for the mangling Thakurda). His humor uplifts and continues to surprise despite that fact that I have read the same books many times over.

When I examine his humor I find an interesting pattern. He sets you up nicely every time and then shifts the ground under your feet to split you up completely. Look at some examples:

 “There is only one cure for gray hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine.”

“One prefers, of course, on all occasions to be stainless and above reproach, but, failing that, the next best thing is unquestionably to have got rid of the body”

“Hell, it is well known has no fury like a woman who wants her tea and can’t get it”

“He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom”

He sets your mind up to work in the direction of the staid and prosaic and then switches to complete the thought in a different , sometimes bizarre take altogether , yet weaves something invariably relatable for all of us. Of course his humor is hugely creative but the key is the way he sets it up. Take away the Set Up and the humor falls away.

Many years later, I rediscovered this principle in the context of facilitation. Good facilitation’s purpose is to create moments of sharp realization or Aha’s in a fun , enjoyable way, which you can then process further into establishing behavior of choice.

For instance, I conduct this session on Strategic Thought. I play a simple game of arm wrestling in pairs in the audience. I have invariably got exactly the same result every time I have played. The trick is the same. Give them a perception of control but load the perception even before the game starts. I do the loading through the Set up of the game where I describe the task to be done.

For instance , I start by harking back to the childhood when all of us have played the game and struggled with each other to find out who is the strongest; I use visual clues in my description, that of struggling to bring the other person’s arm down; then I goad them to win and show who is the stronger of the two; then I tell them that you have to maximize your wins i.e by forcing the other person’s hand down repeatedly till I say stop; I establish scarcity by stating that there is a limited amount of time to maximize ‘your’ wins… with this kind of set up, every time folks will battle it out with each other in a traditional arm wrestling game and force a few wins…

Then I turn it around, call one of the audience up and play with him/her; But first, I strike a quiet agreement with my partner that we will both let the arm loose and go rapidly on both sides so that we can both maximize and equal our wins. Typically our score is a multiple of the highest in the group earlier… this helps me bring out the point that the difference was in the mindset of Win-Lose which they practiced and Win-Win which my partner and I exhibited. Just the change in that thought changed the behavior and gave dramatically different results. That is strategic thought. The ability to pirouette in the mind and look at the same situation with a different and even contrary lens.

Thoughts tend to run in tracks and invariably reach their natural conclusion unless jerked out of the track on to a new one.. as a facilitator when I want to make a point in a dramatic way I can use this principle by cueing the track I want strongly to make dramatic learning happen.

And where do you do it? – in the Set Up

The Set Up is the most valuable part of facilitation. It defines the direction in which your audience’s mind is going to run. I have found it very useful to think through the Set Up in detail, define situations with great care and identify specific word clues and phrases as well as questions that I would ask.

While the activity itself lasts for only 10 minutes, I would have spent half an hour agonizing over each word and gesture in the

Set Up. To take the same example as an illustration:

Step 1: Begin from the Objective: which is to get the audience to see Strategic Thought as a Lens they can choose to wear at will.

Step 2: Define the precise Result you want at each stage: With the same Instructions they have to perform Win-Lose and then subsequently demonstrate Win-Win so that they can see that just changing the lens from Win- Lose to Win-Win changes everything.

Step 3: Detail the Cueing: Therefore the Set Up has to cue the Win –Lose Lens strongly. 3 key aspects need to be thought through:

  1. Defining the activity or task in a manner that fits both the Win –Lose Lens as well as the Win-Win Lens so that the flip of lens is credible and the message goes through.
  2. Cueing the Win-Lose Lens when setting up for them to do the activity by choosing words very carefully (‘maximize your Wins’); by using meta-verbal clues(mimic a tough arm wrestling bout when talking of it); Use personal experiential contexts to ensure the mind runs along the natural Win-Lose path (cue in the child hood remembrance of the game as a show of strength)
  3. Creating a scarcity mindset so that the mind quickly foreshortens options to habit and does not attempt to go beyond normal thinking tracks which is typically Win-Lose.

If you get the Set Up right the result follows naturally; for the audience it is magic and fun! Like it was for me

The Lens Did It

Boat 1

One evening a colleague of mine stopped me in the corridor and related an interesting incident. “I was stuck at this crossing “, he said “and there was this chappie driving a fancy car in front of me who had cut across and wedged himself in front of me. I was boiling mad. To make matters worse he slowly started rolling back towards me. I was shocked and didn’t know what to do. I tried blowing my horn at him, even yelled at him in frustration fully confident that he was going to back into my little box of a car and crush the front. It was only when I looked out of the side of my car and to my horror, realized that it was not he who was rolling backwards but my car that was rolling gently forward on an almost indiscernible downward slope. I had an epiphany. His earlier act of cutting across me had got me so mad that I had assumed that he was rolling towards me, while the truth was that it was I that was rolling towards him. I had subconsciously chosen the lens that I wanted to wear and it took a reality check to jolt me out of the lens!”. Thankfully his lens had the sense to change itself in time! Reality helped of course (apart from the fact that he had a faint suspicion that it is highly unlikely that the whole world around you could move backwards simultaneously. Perhaps, his brain told him -it is just possible that you are moving forward?)

The lens I wear is to do with my attitudes, my beliefs, the stories I tell myself from my life experiences and my judgments as was powerfully evidenced by my friend

I have, over a period of time discovered that this lens wearing is a fairly insidious business. Half the time I don’t even realize that my world view is being strongly driven by the lens that I am wearing, and the other half I don’t even know I am wearing a particular kind of lens! The power of the lens though is that it can cut both ways.

'Whoa! Half empty! Definitely half empty!'

The beauty is that the lens can take you up or take you down into the depths of despair. In fact, I had a cousin (yet another relative in my list of teachers of life’s lessons. I plead guilty to a nepotistic ascription of wisdom to my family) who had the ability to find something positive in every sling and every arrow of misfortune big or small. It was infuriating to all the rest of us. “How can he not find it upsetting? How can he pretend that the mess he is in is fine? He is not being real “All of us siblings, once removed, would constantly be at him to see the stark reality for what it is, so that he could recognize that the world is not always nice and that around every good turn there is a bad one lurking waiting for you to come around the corner, rubbing its hands in evil glee. It was all water off a duck’s back. “One day he will learn it the hard way” The man didn’t relent or change his worldview.

And the inevitable happened. He did extremely well in life and most importantly, continued to deal with life with joy and equanimity! What the rest of us realized over time was that it was we who were wearing the wrong lens. His lens was ” glass half full all the time” and ours was “glass half empty most of the time”. We therefore missed seeing the opportunity in adversity. He learnt life’s lessons well; while we missed most of the chances to learn, to reinvent ourselves, to beat the mickey out of the chappies in the ancient Fields of Punishment who dole out misfortunes in decent sized doses (Sisyphus will testify).

Nature can only present me with situations. What I can potentially make of it depends on my worldview-  my Lens. If I am miserable, in a bad place, feeling down and out – My Lens did it. If today you are happy, you have arrived and you are as close as you can be to your aspirations- Your Lens did it.


Humor without Uniform, No Peacocks please !



Gavaskar once when asked how he liked to play the dreaded West Indian pace quartet, replied “From the non-striker’s end” . And this came at the peak of his reputation as an opening batsman who had in a certain sense tamed the fiercest of pace-attacks. What a wonderful way of showing yourself as a vulnerable human being! In an endearingly funny way it connected us – the ones who can’t hold a bat to a monkey throwing nuts- to the great batsman himself.

And did it reduce his stature as one of the greatest opening bats in the world? If anything, it enhanced it. Here was a guy who conquered raw fear, extreme nervousness and performed and vanquished not only the fear but also the fear mongers. Respect elevated.

Great leaders, more often than not, seem to have a healthy degree of self-doubt and a serious sense of self-deprecating humor. I have seen this pattern in many of my meetings with CEOs and CXOs, especially the better ones.

I had the good fortune to work with a very senior person in the Pharma industry.. This gentleman was brought in to clean up, resurrect and accelerate the growth of the Indian acquisition of a foreign multi-national. His resume and track record were impeccable -Impressive was not the word, in fact impressive paled and withered at the starter’s end.

Fully expecting a reasonable amount of self-respect I found a person unassuming, very eager to learn from every person he met and dealt with. Even more impressive was the compassion and connect with which he dealt with his people even when required to take some extremely tough decisions. And typically, all his humor had one target – himself. Though this did not make him a pushover. He was assertive, competitive and fueled with ambition both for himself and the organization. His self-doubt engendered his eagerness to listen deeply and learn without if with all his experience- he knew best. His ability to laugh at himself threw open windows to a freshness and authenticity that made him extremely approachable and engaging. No signs of his general’s uniform excepting when the occasion demanded it

These traits allowed him to take the hard decisions needed to turn the company around. It also allowed him to take them in a manner that was least damaging to the organization and the individuals concerned.  A general without his uniform adapt to the new environment, could use his experience with wisdom and learn, connect and succeed.

Unfortunately, very often I see senior leaders in corporations consumed by hubris.  Once, I was in a conversation with a fairly accomplished CEO. In a very short while (roughly three blinks of my right eye, the left one is a bit laggard and therefore doesn’t count) I figured this was a conversation about me, mine and myself. For some strange reason, very difficult of course to figure out, I had visions of a peacock consumed by its own dance.. He was so good he couldn’t have enough of himself. Failing to get a word in edge-ways even twice folded, I soon settled on a beatific (or so I think!) smile on my face. Little did he know that I was admiring the peacock with its feathers unfurled. Here was I face to face with the exalted one and all I could see was peacocks. Very disrespectful of me, I am sure, but left me wondering how many of his ‘boys’ saw peacocks on a daily basis. The problem with peacocks is that after a while you only see their feet and your respect and awe begin to wilt like a diva on a hot summer afternoon.

In my interactions, I increasingly hear the word Agility as a key requirement to survive the VUCA (Volatile,Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. Agility is deeply connected to learning and learning if I may stretch a point, in turn to self-doubt and a dash of sense of humor.

So no uniforms and certainly no peacocks, please!



Tyranny of Shoulds


I have been a fan of Wodehouse ever since I could toddle up and say boo to a goose. Not that geese were willing and indulgent listeners in the parts where I grew up. When you look at vintage Wodehouse, his humor more often than not hinges on the concept of Noblesse Oblige (Take for instance Bertie Wooster’s inability to square up to his aunts and his consequent spiral into humorous tangles).

Wikipedia describes Noblesse Oblige as “a French phrase literally meaning ‘nobility obligates’. It denotes the concept that nobility extends beyond mere entitlements and requires the person of status, to fulfill social responsibilities, particularly in leadership roles”.

Noblesse Oblige is a whole bunch of Shoulds that society, community, family, and our own conscious and sub conscious self ingrains in us from the time we are born. Noblesse Oblige operates as a deep belief in most of us who live in civilized societies (may be in uncivilized ones too for that matter, especially when it comes to first dibs at the communal cannibal pot!). And it operates in incredibly insidious ways.

I saw this in a session with a senior member of  a leadership team in a mid tier start up experiencing vigorous growth.  The technology team that he led consisted of some young blood, which caused work-ethic dissensions.

And he found it extremely difficult to relate to the fact that the millennials have scant patience for the business of slogging in the trenches. He was exasperated at their sense of entitlement,   their poor dedication to work and an unending anxiety to pursue multiple interests at the same time. “They don’t stay late or work on weekends even if we have severe deadlines”, he retorted. ” However he could not deny the fact that they delivered at the same pace as the rest of the workforce. . What he sought was a connection, a way to motivate them.

It took me a while ( quite a while in fact) to get him to see  the possibility that it might be his problem and not theirs. While his attitude towards this age group was a case in point, it actually  demonstrated  the way his belief system had ossified his thought and caged him in the tyranny of the Shoulds over time “they should be like this and they should be like that ;they should put work above everything else ;they should be patient; they should put in long hours, juxtaposed with the familiar  “this is how we did things things in our times and therefore we progressed”

He was racked by the belief that anything in life ‘should’ be earned the hard way and over a period of time  sans any short cuts. This had come from the struggles of his own life and career and anything else was inconceivable to him. Through the conversation it became evident to him that most of his ‘Shoulds ‘ were a burden he carried, that got in the way of his ability to derive the best out of his team and his own self; He realized the inescapable truth  that this disability manifested itself in almost all spheres of his life. In short his ‘Shoulds’ had tyrannized him into responding in ways that had made him less effective and more miserable.

On the one hand a consciously adopted belief system can strengthen moral fiber and lend clarity to action. For instance, his belief that as a parent he is responsible for exemplifying and role modeling the values of kindness and compassion to his childrenOn the other hand not being aware how sub consciously adopted beliefs debilitate and misdirect response to an environmental stimulus. For instance in this specific case, the anger/frustration emanating from the violation of his ‘Shoulds’ leading to his rejection of the non-conforming youngsters ( but were effective at their jobs nevertheless), and consequent lack of empathy leading to an uninspired and uninspiring team.

In other words, imbibing a little less of Bertie Wooster and a little more of Alfie Dolittle from My Fair Lady ( who seems to have had very few shoulds except having fun in life ) would further being  a more effective human being and an inspiring leader.