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.



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!