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

Words Matter and Tone Counts


My uncle was a well-respected Principal of a College who had some serious differences on matters of Principle with the Correspondent of the College.  As a result he had been removed from his post illegally by the afore mentioned gentleman (to use a polite term, my family had more choice names for him).  We were at lunch as a family and like good tam-brams sitting on the floor and eating our sambar, vegetable and rice while my uncle was venting like billy yo. The incident was a new piece of perfidy perpetrated by this gentleman and my uncle was holding forth on the specific and special qualities of his favorite nemesis. To some diatribe of my uncle’s against the venerable party of the other part, I unthinkingly responded “I suppose you are right”. This was my fancy way of saying I agreed with him. But I was taken aback when he in response, expostulated “you Suppose!!!, who gave you the right to suppose?”. I didn’t think that the usage of Suppose required a license from some govt. office. Needless to say, the rest of the meal I held my tongue and consciously employed it more profitably in dealing with the food.

The hurt remained with me and in fact I reflected a lot on this explosion by my uncle over the years. Went from resentment to denial to finally accepting that he was not unjustified. I had chosen to add ‘Suppose’. I had not said ‘you are right’. This was perhaps a signal of my subliminal reservation that I did not fully agree with him as I had not heard the other party.  And I realized that there was a serious lesson that I could learn from this episode. He had read condescension, though I had not meant it; but given the state of stress he was in ‘suppose’ meant grudging concession, which he was not going to brook from a whipper-snapper of a boy.

I have realized over time that the choice of words and the tone in which it is said reveals a lot about a person’s heart and mind. Watch out for the qualifiers. In several group sessions where some agreement is being sought I have often seen people open out avenues of escape by qualifying their commitment quite unthinkingly.

“I am Ok with it” is not always a particularly enthusiastic approval. Instead of assuming that we have reached agreement it may actually be a signal to probe to find what is the real reservation. And usually I find some past baggage or some misconception or a genuine apprehension that can de-rail everything. Handling the objection in an inclusive open manner will bring energy and commitment; ignoring the undertone is a recipe for disaster. Sometimes deeper enquiry may actually get people to reflect more deeply and understand concerns and worries that they have been denying even to themselves.

Another one is “it is pretty good”. Ah! There is a subliminal message here. Note it is not an unqualified approval and therefore reflects some reservations. So what is lacking my friend, against what standards? Open it up and you may have a plethora of pieces that need to be dealt with before your plan can even take birth.

Of course, while being aware of the flavor of words it is important to make enough concessions to Miss Malaprop.

Tone too is a dead give away. Take, for instance, the well known story about the word Yeah. It can be used to convey agreement, enthusiasm, simply NO, disbelief, sarcasm (try it now. It’s a fun exercise. By some strange rule the younger they are, the more dexterity they display with it. It kind of peaks in the teens). And if you prefix it with “oh” it can lead to more flavors than the varieties of Dosa.

Being sensitive to how words are used by people and the tones in which they say it, helps me connect deeply to the inner recesses of their mind. It is in those dimly lit caverns that the heart molds our thoughts. Getting people to change requires sensitivity to follow the trail set up by diction to get to the real levers of personal growth. It is no coincidence that diction means both choice of words and enunciation! Enunciation is but one step removed from tone.

Language has always seen these two, words and tone as close cousins. And the fact is that they both count and matter.

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.