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Blog by Alan Seale, January 31, 2022, Transformational Leadership

There is a saying, “The answer is in the question.” The saying implies that if we just ask the right question, we will find our answer. Yet what do we do when questions don’t have answers? What if, in fact, those questions—often really big questions—don’t actually expect immediate answers? What if they are prodding us to go deeper?  

It occurs to me that there are different kinds of questions. For the sake of exploring, let’s consider four categories: information questions, how-to questions, inquiry questions, and existential questions. You might come up with some other categories as well, yet for now let’s work with these four to help us understand how different kinds of questions are actually asking for different kinds of responses and engagement.  

Information Questions

Information questions are about gathering information. What do you want for lunch? What is on your agenda for today? How does this machine work? What is the policy or usual practice for this situation? The answers to these kinds of questions are usually fairly straightforward. Yet as soon as action is required, we quickly move to…

How-to questions

How-to questions are all about getting something done—accomplishing a task, reaching a goal, completing a project. We ask: How are we going to do it? What is the plan? How-to questions treat situations as problems to solve. Inherent within the question is the assumption that we can “figure out” how to do whatever the task or project is, and then just do it. Sometimes how-to questions are exactly what is needed. 

Yet when the situation or challenge is more complex—when it involves more than one person and diverse thoughts, opinions, desires, needs, or perspectives—how-to questions are often not helpful. The more there is to consider, the more “how-to” questions become paralyzing. There are no simple answers and the path forward seems elusive. When this is the case, continuing to try to analyze the situation or “figure it out” only leads to frustration.  

When how-to questions don’t help, it’s a clear sign that the situation is asking us to look deeper. It’s trying to show us something we haven’t yet considered—a bigger picture or perspective. In Transformational Presence, we say, “A problem is not something to be solved; it’s a message to be listened to.”

Which leads us to… 

Inquiry Questions

Inquiry questions don’t expect clear and immediate answers. Instead, they ask us to pause and take a step back. Inquiry questions ask us to drop beneath the surface or look beyond the obvious to consider a bigger picture, a larger context, a broader perspective. They ask us to be curious. Inquiry questions often lead to even more questions. An inquiry is a search for truth, for knowledge, for understanding.  What is this situation asking me to understand more fully? What are we being asked to learn more about? What parts of the puzzle are we missing? What have we not been paying attention to? 

Inquiry questions ask us to investigate our assumptions, to open to possibilities beyond what we have imagined, and sometimes to venture into unknown territory. They often require further research, a greater investment in time and energy, and quite often a deeper look inside of ourselves. The deeper we dive into complex situations, whether in our personal lives, in our families, or in business, politics, or anything that involves human relations, we ultimately come face-to-face with…

Existential Questions

Existential questions are the big questions of life. Who are we? What do we stand for? What is right? What is most important? What is mine or ours to do and what is not? What is the best use of what I or we have to offer? 

These questions are at the heart of perhaps every significant challenge and opportunity we face today, whether personal, social, political, economic, or environmental. Too often, we approach these issues with how-to or inquiry questions when, in fact, at their core, they are existential in nature. Fundamentally, they are about who we are at the heart of our being and how we choose to be in relationship with one another and with the Earth. 

What if instead of how-to or inquiry questions, we ask: What is this situation really about—down deep at its essence? What is it asking for from us? How is it asking us to show up? What is most important for the well-being of all? These are not quick-answer questions—they are reflective or pondering questions. 

As we begin to sense answers, we can then ask What is my or our next step? What is mine or ours to do, and what is not? Existential questions ask us to recognize who we are and how we’re showing up. And to be honest with ourselves in asking: Is how we are showing up helping for the good of all? 

Working at the existential level ultimately means knowing who we are at our essence, why we’re here, what gifts we bring, and then bringing them to the situation at hand. It’s about recognizing where we can make the greatest difference and then getting busy doing it. Whether you are an individual or a group, get busy doing what is yours to do. 

Questions That Don’t Have Answers Are Requests to Go Deeper

When questions don’t have answers, they are requests to go deeper. Requests to step beyond our assumptions or how we’ve always thought about things. Requests to plumb the depths of our individual and collective being. Requests to listen intuitively to the issues themselves. To let the issues work on us. To sense what they are asking us to explore, what they are asking us to consider differently, and who they are asking us to become in service of something bigger than ourselves. 

In his poem “Sometimes,” David Whyte invites us to meet existential questions as…

…Requests to stop doing what
you are doing right now, 

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it…

He goes on to name these requests as: 

that can make
or unmake
a life,

that have patiently 
waited for you,

that have no right
to go away.

(Excerpts from “Sometimes” by David Whyte)

The enormous questions we face today are asking us to stop doing what we are doing right now and to stop what we are becoming while we do it. They are asking us to take a breath and open to the possibility that there is more here than we have been willing to consider. And that there just might be another path waiting for us if we will only pay attention.

These are indeed questions that can make or unmake a life—questions that we may be hesitant or even afraid to ask. Some part of us knows that answering these questions honestly may, in fact, ask us to give something up, to show up differently, to shift our perspective, or to live into the full potential of who we were born to be. Requests that can be both terrifying and exciting at the same time. 

Questions that have waited patiently, yet their patience is running thin. The time is now. Questions that have no right to go away. Issues in our lives and in our world that are not going to leave us alone. They won’t let go of us. They won’t go away. They are here for a reason; they have a purpose. And they won’t go away until we have stepped up to meet them with the best we have to offer from the core of our being.  

More and more during the last year, I’ve been walking with these requests and what they are asking of me. I continue finding more clarity about what is mine to do now at this time in my life, and what isn’t. And I’m reminded once again that it’s the simple and direct questions that open doors of awareness and understanding that have been waiting to be opened.  

What are the questions that don’t have answers that won’t let go of you? What are their deeper requests?