Sometimes an idea goes viral simply because it makes a lot of sense — like the one clinical psychologist and social worker Marilee Adams of Lambertville captured in the title of her 2004 book “Change Your Questions Change Your Life,” now in its third edition, having sold 300,000 copies, with translations in 20 languages. But it was her first book, “The Art of the Question,” that got her a gig speaking about strategic and critical thinking at the National Defense University, which morphed into public workshops and speaking and consulting for diverse government agencies, universities, and companies large and small.
Adams teaches people how to ask questions that open themselves and others to learning. Positing that all people have two mindsets, the judger and the learner, Adams teaches people how to move away from the judger mindset, which closes down learning, and toward the learner — via the questions they ask.
“When we are judgmental, we are critical and more closed-minded and needing certainty,” Adams says. An overly judgmental stance promotes self-doubt and low self-confidence and often has negative effects on others. However, when we ask questions in a learner mindset, which is “more open minded, accepting, discerning, creative, connected,” she continues, “people are likely to feel invited into conversation and be more forthcoming, more connected, and more trusting. When we ask learner questions of ourselves, we build self-confidence, creativity, and the ability to connect with others.”
Adams will speak on “Great Results Begin with Great Questions” at the Hopewell Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, on Wednesday, June 27, at 6 p.m. for dinner, 8 p.m. for talk only. The program will also celebrate Judy Detrano, organizer of Lambertville’s Wednesdays for Women, a weekly program that until 2017 highlighted the work of women entrepreneurs, artists and activists. Cost: $110 for a two-person table, $220 for a four-person table; for talk only, $15, $13.50 for seniors and students. For more information and to purchase tickets, call 609-466-1964 or visit hopewelltheater.com/live/talk.
During her talk at the Hopewell Theater Adams plans to tell stories that will leave attendees thinking differently and, as a result, “having better communication and better relationships,” she says. “When people have methods for asking themselves questions that forward what they want, it is really life changing.”
Adams began to realize the importance of the work she was developing on questions when she realized that “it was sticky — people could apply it easily and quickly and get results from it, a wife to a husband, parents to kids, a CEO being coached.”
“When people learn to ask questions rather than giving answers and advice all the time, what happens is people get more engaged, more connected, more trusted, and, as it turns out, also more effective,” Adams says. For corporate teams this means “less conflict, less wasted time, which is a big deal, and bringing projects in more quickly and on budget.”
Adams offers some tips for asking questions in a work setting that promote learning:
Curiosity moves people into the learner mindset, and its absence shuts down learning. “Whatever somebody says to you or does, if you can get yourself to being curious about them and what they did and what they are going to do, it begins to take you into the learner mindset,” Adams says, noting that “curiosity is how we learn from our earliest infancy to the day we draw our last breath.” A team leader who is in a bad mood, didn’t get enough sleep, or is coming down with a cold will likely be in more of a judger mindset; instead of asking questions, this person may snap at people, tell them to hurry and finish their point, or even denigrate what they say. “What that does is it closes everybody down,” Adams says.
Be aware of your mindset. Once we are able to notice which mindset we are in, we can change our questions, “and that changes everything,” Adams says. In the December, 2004, issue of “Experience Life” she lists the kinds of questions that grow out of judger and learner mindsets. In judger, we ask questions that limit interaction and cooperation: “What’s wrong?” “Who’s to blame?”“How can I prove I’m right?” “Why is that other person so clueless and frustrating?” “How can I protect my turf?” The best way to change to a learner mindset is by asking learner questions instead: “What works?” “What am I responsible for?” “What are the facts?” “What is the other person feeling, needing, wanting?” “What’s the big picture?”
“The questions that change your life are learner ones,” Adams says. “If something that feels negative happens to you, if you asked yourself, ‘Why does this awful stuff keep happening to me?’ it’s going to put you in a bad mood and reinforce judger. If you then ask yourself, ‘What can I learn from this?’ or ‘How can I turn this into an opportunity?’ it alters what you’re seeing is possible and also your mood.”
Adams shares a story from “Change Your Questions Change Your Life” about a woman who had serious problems with her boss. “It turned out that she was asking herself over and over, ‘What is my boss going to do wrong today?’” Adams says. When the woman followed Adams’s suggestion to change her question to “What can I do to make my boss look good?” the result was reduced stress, a promotion, a raise, and a good relationship with her boss.
Listen with learner ears rather than judger ears, even to critical or nasty comments. Listen for what could be “valuable and useful” about a person rather than “what is stupid and wrong about them.” Judgers listen while asking themselves questions like “Do I like or not like what they are saying?” “Do I approve or disapprove?” or “What dumb things are they going to say next?”
To help the woman in the previous example listen differently to her boss, Adams gave her another question: What is there to understand and appreciate about my boss? “When you can get people to start wondering about that and ask questions about that,” Adams says,“they will discover things and that leads to better relationships.”
Adams grew up in Richmond, Virginia, where her father was a wholesale electronics distributor. She graduated from Drew University in Madison in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Interested in working with people, she earned a master’s degree in social work from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. As she started working in psychiatric settings, Adams says she “started getting more fascinated with how the human mind works and how the human heart works,” and in 1986 completed a PhD in clinical psychology from the Fielding Graduate University.
In addition to her consulting, Adams is an executive coach; a professional speaker; president of the Inquiry Institute (www.inquiryinstitute.com), a consulting, coaching, and educational organization; adjunct professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University in the Key Executive Leadership Program; faculty for the Institute for Life Coach Training, the Adler Institute, and Expedition Coaching; and a coach with the Society of Organizational Learning.
Learning how to ask questions from a learner mindset can be critical in a business environment, because business teams with mostly judger mindsets are usually low-performance. “It is important to learn how to communicate with genuine, serious learner questions because it has a very tangible outcome,” Adams says.