Tag Archives: useful questions


Sometimes I am what my mother called ‘a forgetter’ – I forget to do things that really work for me. Over the last year, I have got into the habit of planning what I’ll do in a day and forgotten to start by setting an intention for the day. Fortunately, I have a friend who reminds me of things I forget – thank you Rebecca!

Setting an intention for the day makes a difference to how our days go, because it gives a bigger context for the plans – it flavours the activities, if you like. Rather than just doing stuff, it makes you aware of how you’re doing them, and prompts you to add in or take out of your plan, in order to fulfil your intention.

A simple example would be to say to yourself: ‘I will have a good day today.’ This prompts you to think about what a good day means to you, and to make sure you give yourself the chance to put the right sort of mix into the equation. It might mean adding in something you enjoy doing, or taking out one of the tasks you had set yourself because it would be one step too far.

Setting an intention for the day gives you something more satisfying to assess your day against. It’s taking it beyond what you did and into how you did it. and it gives you back control: even if we can’t always choose what we’re going to do, we can always choose how we go about it.

So, what’s your intention for the day? Is it to have a good day, a productive day, or to give yourself a break? Make it into a day with a flavour that suits you by just deciding you will.


I was talking with a friend a while ago, and she was describing a camping trip she and her husband had been on. It was obvious how much that had recharged her batteries – joy and energy exuded from her. Now that would be something I would endure rather than delight in, especially if the weather was cold!

It reminded me that we’re all different, and yet we are prone to suggest solutions to others that would work for us. For example, I always think going in the garden to do something is a great positive mood-changer, because it is for me. But for others, it may just be another chore to be done, and have the opposite effect.

I know I often say: ‘What you need is…’, but I hope that most of the time that is followed by either a vague generalisation – ‘a pick-me-up’ or ‘a distraction’ – or if specific, is something that I already know works for that person, rather than for me.

If we really want to help someone to feel better, or solve a problem they have, the most useful thing we can do is to ask them the right questions, to help them to find their own answers.

  • What would help you to feel better/solve this/cope with this?
  • When have you dealt with something like this in the past, and what did you do then?

If they don’t come up with something, we can make suggestions, but we need a repertoire of possible solutions, garnering ideas from all the different ways in which we see people sort things out. And we need to make it clear that we’re not invested in giving them ‘the answer’, only in helping them to find it.

And don’t forget, if someone does try to solve your problems for you, don’t get cross – they’re trying to help. Use their suggestions as a springboard to find your own best answer.

Now, I suggest you go and spend some time in the garden!!!


Whether it be about the wider context of our world, or about something which happens to us personally, why is not a useful question.

It may serve a purpose in gaining us a greater understanding or an explanation, but it is also likely to make us feel more powerless, more a victim of circumstance, or more guilty.

We generally ask why when something doesn’t make sense in our world view: Why did this happen to me? Why don’t they…? Why would someone…? Why can’t I…? We start from a place of wishing it were different from how it is, of finding whatever it is confusing or unacceptable. So any answers we may find already have a negative tinge.

More than that, answers to why don’t help us to handle it better usually, and are very unlikely to change the circumstance. ‘Why doesn’t so and so call me back?’ for example, just makes me feel crosser and doesn’t prompt them to call me!

So, what will help us to deal with whatever it is? This is a more useful question! Once we accept that it is how it is, then we can ask ourselves the useful questions: What am I going to do about it? How can I find a way to deal with it?

We are living through a time when things don’t make sense to us, and it’s easy to be disheartened by it. But we also all have the ability to choose to find a way to make our lives work the best way we can in the circumstances, rather than to be victims of it. Let’s stop asking why and start asking what can I do to help myself through.

20-20 VISION

Nobody knows yet what this year holds in store for us, so we have the opportunity to create at least our part of the vision of 2020.

I chose to call this 20-20 vision because it has the implication of perfect or ideal – and we all need to shoot for the stars in creating our story. If we aim to make things a bit better – or, even worse, not so bad – we are setting a very low bar. Better to set a high bar and not quite reach it – it’ll still be closer to that ideal.

So, the first question is: how do you want to be in 2020? This sets the tone for the other aspects of your creation of your story. Your answers will be descriptions of how you want to feel as you go thrugh the year. Examples might be: happy; healthy; calm; active; kind.

Then we can go on to the next question: what can you do to help yourself to be like that? Notice that this question emphasises the actions you can take for yourself. If the way you want to be depends on external influences, such as other people, or a good job, or a change of government, you will have already made yourself a victim of circumstance, rather than the creator of your own story.

I think it is useful to look at the different aspects of yourself in this next set of answers. Firstly, what can you do to help your mind stay in a positive, constructive attitude? Then, what can you do to help your body feel good? And finally, what can you do to keep your spirits good – ways of feeding your soul?

At this point it is useful to consider how others can help you to help yourself. Not depending on others actions doesn’t mean we have to do it all by ourselves.  We can ask for practical and/or moral support from others. Examples might be finding a ‘buddy’ to do some physical activity with, or asking a friend or partner to encourage you by noticing when you’ve done well in your intentions.

All of this is about making your everyday life closer to the story you want to have, because that’s what makes the most difference to how we feel. A wish list is all very well, but it’s every day that we create the story of our lies most consistently.

So come on, set a 2020 vision for yourself and decide to make it a good year for you, no matter what happens!


There are some phrases we would be better off not knowing, and one of them is: ‘If only…’ It almost always expresses regret about something in our past: ‘ If only I hadn’t eaten that chocolate cake’, or ‘If only I’d held my tongue in that conversation’, or ‘ If only they had noticed that I was struggling’.

Most of them give us reasons to beat ourselves up, and some of them give us reasons to resent other people. None of them are useful!

They are usually referring to things that have already happened, and we can’t change that. It’s a terrible waste of our energy to wish something in the past were different, and positively sinful to beat ourselves up about it!

The alternative is to use those thoughts as a means of doing something different in the future. We can use those phrases to help us to create a different story for ourselves from now on.

If I hear myself doing an ‘if only..’, I ask myself a couple of questions:

  1. Can I do anything to rectify it?
  2. How can I approach similar situations differently next time, so that it turns out in a better way?

Can I rectify it?

If I ate chocolate cake, it’s done! But if I was mean to somebody, or unfair, I may be able to apologise to them and acknowledge that I know I got it wrong.

If someone upset me and I’m holding a grudge, there’s not much I can do about being upset, although sometimes when we re-examine the situation, we have a different perspective on it, and realise that it wasn’t really that serious – we just took it that way at the time.

How can I approach similar situations differently next time, so that it turns out in a better way?

Here’s the useful bit!

If we think about alternative approaches we could use, we are doing two useful things:

  1. We are learning from our experience, instead of repeating the same errors, or beating ourselves up about it – and by the way, beating ourselves up about it means that we replay the experience and practise to do it again next time!
  2. We automatically play our improved version in our minds, and this is like rehearsing to do it more effectively next time we experience something similar, so we have some practice at the new improved way of handling it, and are more likely to use this version.

So next time you find yourself saying: ‘If only..’, use these two questions and stop it in its tracks!


Have you ever told someone about something you had a problem with, and had them immediately jump in with a solution to your problem? We all have, haven’t we? And occasionally it’s useful and helpful, but often it is just somewhat annoying, yet you know they’re just trying to help.

Their solution can sound condescending or just be inappropriate. It may be something you have already considered and decided wouldn’t work for you, or it may just not fit for you or your particular version of the problem.

You see, most fixes offered are ones that would make sense in the fixer’s view of the world, rather than yours. The fixer is interpreting the problem in the way it would show up in their lives and offering the solution that would work for them. So they’ve solved the problem for themselves, should it appear, but not for you! The problem may sound the same as it would in their world, but the implications and impact of it in your world will be different. Similarly, the solution may work in their world, but it may not fit your way of sorting things out, or deal with all the implications for you.

Of course, we’ve all been that ‘fixer’ as well, and of course, we offer the solution because we want to help. So how can we help more usefully?

There are two ways we can be really helpful to someone with a problem. The first way is to take the time to allow them just to talk about it, without judgement or interruptions.

Many years ago, a friend of mine phoned to suggest she came round that evening. I was feeling really miserable and that the world was full of shit, so I told her not to. Ten minutes later, she knocked at the door. ‘I’ve brought wine, and pen and paper,’ she said. ‘I’m going to take notes while you tell me all about it, and we have a glass of wine.’

After about half an hour of pouring out my miseries, I began to feel my mood changing. I apologised for inflicting it all on her, and she said: ‘you didn’t. I was in a good mood anyway, and I feel just fine. I thought I could just be a light at the end of the tunnel, and help you to make your way through that tunnel.’ What a lovely description of what she had done to help me! She had kept herself feeling good, and allowed me to express what I was feeling so it came out of my mind and body, and I could get some perspective again. Just allowing me to talk it out made such a difference.

The second thing we can do for others is to ask questions that help them to sort it out for themselves, in ways that work in their world. A few useful questions might be:

  • What exactly is bothering you about this?
  • How would you like it to be resolved?
  • What would make it possible for you to sort it out?
  • What would help you to sort it out?

These sorts of questions help people to find their own answers, ones that will work for them.

So next time someone comes to you with a problem, don’t be a fixer – be someone who helps them to help themselves.


Sometimes we all make our own life harder for ourselves. One of the more subtle ways we do so is by the way we think about our experience of life. Most of us have a constant inner commentator who pronounces judgements on us as if there is a scorecard with our name on it, with a ridiculously high pass mark against every activity, behaviour and thought.

For example, we may decide to try cooking something different for a change. Our inner commentator points out that we probably haven’t allowed enough time for the new recipe, and that it hasn’t turned out like the picture in the recipe book. What’s more, those we cooked it for don’t really appreciate it anyway. And then that same commentator will criticise us for being a perfectionist and needing validation from others!

It is rare that our inner commentator says: ‘Well done for having a go’ or ‘That was a really good first attempt.

We need to learn to interrupt the commentator with its judgement and high pass marks. It puts us in a position of failure and disappointment over and over again.

Firstly, we need to change the pass mark into something more helpful. This means noticing whether it is a step in the right direction for us: ‘Am I doing a bit better than I did before?’ ‘ Have I made a slight improvement?’ This sort of measurement is not done moment by moment: it measures our general pattern. For example: ‘ I’m getting better at experimenting with something new’ or ‘I’m more willing to take a risk.’

Secondly, we need to remind our commentators that were human, not perfect beings. We won’t always get it ‘right’, we do slip sometimes, and our progress is not generally linear – it is more like an upward spiral, which sometimes goes downwards, but gradually reaches new heights.

Lastly, and most fundamentally, we need to interrupt the negative and critical thoughts and behaviours by asking a simple question: ‘ Is this useful to me?’ if our intention is to grow our lives into something more joyous and constructive for us, we need to question whether that thought or behaviour is helping us to do that, rather than judging it right or wrong, good or bad.

If our immediate response to the question, ‘Is this useful to me?’ is yes, then we are fine. If it is no, then there is a second question that naturally follows on: ‘So what would be more useful?’

For example, if my conclusion in the cooking experiment is that I won’t bother to do it again, as a result of the commentators’ views, I may decide that it’s useful because cooking is not really my thing, and I could use my energy on something that I do like doing. Or I may decide that it’s not a useful conclusion, and it would be more useful to cook something a bit simpler next time I experiment.

When we ask ourselves if our thought or behaviour is useful, we remind ourselves of the likely impact of it on us and others, and have a choice for how we move next. We help ourselves to grow the life we want.

So just start adding in that question, when you get caught up in the negative cycle. Is this useful to me? And if not, what would be more useful?



Every so often I realise that I’ve started evaluating myself against a set of standards that a saint would find it hard to match – and I’m no saint! I don’t think I’m unusual in this. We all fall into the trap of expecting ourselves to be perfect – whatever that means for us – and then berating ourselves for not matching up to that ideal. It’s very unfair – we wouldn’t do that to a friend.

There’s nothing wrong with having high standards, an ideal of how we would like to live our lives, how we’d like to be. In fact, it is part of how we motivate ourselves, and clarify whether we are making progress in our lives. The ideal picture gives us something to aim for and helps us to know what we really want life to be about.

However, it is not motivating to criticise ourselves for not being there yet, and anyway, if we were, we would disappear in a flash of white light, because we would have reached perfection!

The measure of our progress is not in what we haven’t yet achieved, but in what we have put into our lives that moves us towards that ideal. What encourages us to keep going is the recognition that we are gradually making progress, rather than noticing where we’ve slipped or failed or got stuck.

That means that we tell ourselves that we’re pleased with ourselves when we do those stretching exercises, rather than berating ourselves for not doing it today. And we don’t expect ourselves to do it every day, if we are having a go at doing it more often. We start with being pleased at once a week, and when that has become habitual, maybe three times a week. It means we give ourselves credit for all the times we deal with others and their moods compassionately, instead of beating ourselves up for a moment of temper or meanness with someone.

The question is not, ‘Have I done it perfectly?’ it is, ‘Am I doing a bit better on this aspect of my life than I was?’ or ‘What have I done well today towards my ideal picture?’ And if you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere, then maybe you need to lower your expectation of yourself for a while, to begin to make progress – you’ll move more easily then.

This approach is not only kinder; it’s also more effective. None of us respond well to being criticised or made to feel like a failure, so why the hell would we do it to ourselves? Give yourself credit for what you do well, according to your own standards, and it gets easier to bring more of it into your life.


From when we are very young, we pick up the idea that life is all about choosing between alternatives, the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer or decision. At school, we all learn quickly that there is a right answer to everything and that it is not acceptable to think outside the box.

Yet the majority of decisions we make in life do not have a clear-cut right answer. The person to partner with, the home we decide to take on, the job we apply for – in these sorts of major life decisions, we really don’t know if it’s the ‘right’ one or not. And we have the same dilemma at an everyday level: curry or pasta for dinner, household chores or visiting friends, do this task now or leave it till tomorrow..

If we stop and consider how we make decisions, we realise that we do a lot of binary thinking – the posh way of saying either/or! And our final decision is often driven by non-logical arguments we use with ourselves: better to be with someone than on my own; it’s what my mother would approve of; people will think I’m mean/lazy/selfish if I don’t – and so on.

Science got beyond this a long time ago, when it was discovered that, at a sub-atomic level, there was not a right answer, only possibilities: light could be both a wave and a particle, depending on the circumstance and what you were looking for.

What if we started to consider possibilities instead of alternatives?

The first thing that happens is that we begin to extend our choices. Instead of asking ourselves if we should do the household chores or visit friends, we start to ask:’ What could I do today?’ Now we can add in other things: do nothing; do some gardening while the sun is shining; go and buy that new freezer I’ve been thinking about.

By opening up our choices, we move our thinking patterns away from binary and habitual to a more creative possibility. Now we can consider the choice from a both/and point of view. For example, we may decide to do a couple of the more pressing household chores, then go to visit friends, and buy the freezer on the way!

At a life-changing level, we may decide that we can begin to experiment with that business we would love to get going, while still carrying on with our present job, or that we could reduce our hours at work gradually rather than just give the job up.

Both/and thinking extends our choices and helps us to bring more possibilities into our lives. It shifts our mind-set into a more creative place, where we can see how we could blend duty and fun, kindness and selfishness, the old and the new.

So start practising on a simple level. Don’t ask yourself: ‘Which should I do?’, ask yourself: ‘What could I do?’ Don’t ask yourself which choice is right, ask yourself: “How can I blend them together and have elements from each to make a new whole?’

If you feel you have no choice, you’re a victim. If you have to choose between two alternatives you are on the horns of a dilemma. And if you have more than two possibilities, you can create something new.


I’m starting with a fundamental: the judgements we make about ourselves, about others, about what we do, about how we are.

I was reminded of this in a conversation with a friend recently: we were discussing what we had been up to since we last met, and both assessing ourselves as ‘failing’. It struck me that she had made some real progress, and then I realised that I had as well. Why didn’t our conversation reflect that?

We are taught from an early age to assess everything as good or bad, right or wrong, and every time we do, we are using a set of criteria with judgement built in, and a tendency towards failure or lack. Notice these criteria are very black and white – if it is not 100% good it goes into the ‘bad’ camp, not 100% right it goes into the ‘wrong’ camp. And we rarely hit 100%!

The reason that the judgements tend to be negative is cultural. We are not innately negative – no small child walks around condemning themselves and others, until they learn to, from the comments of others. Thank goodness! If they did, they would stunt their own development, giving up on learning because they didn’t get it ‘right’ quickly enough.

And now we are grown-ups, maybe we need to free ourselves of the shackles of judgement and allow ourselves to continue to learn and develop. After all, it is what we are biologically designed to do: to continually evolve and grow.

So how do we release these shackles?

There is a very simple change of language that helps a lot. Instead of judging things, events, behaviour, thoughts, as being good or bad, right or wrong, we start to ask ourselves if they are useful to us. This takes out the externally driven judgement, and asks us to assess on a personal basis.

For example, if someone is irritating you with their behaviour, is it useful to you to react with annoyance? How is it paying off for you, now and in the longer term? This makes you think about what you really want to achieve with them, and whether it is worth it to perpetuate or increase the negativity between you. Or, if you are thinking about what a bad day you are having, is this useful to you? You may decide it would be more useful to notice what is working in the day, or what would make it feel like a better day. And of course, in both instances, you may decide that it is useful to you to continue as you were, and that’s OK too!

I find that if I remind myself to ask whether my thought or behaviour is useful rather than right or wrong, good or bad, then it automatically makes me more likely to allow myself to make my life work better.

And by the way, next time you feel good about what you have done, remember to appreciate your own brilliance: as a small child, this attitude is what enabled you to develop – it could be useful now!

So why not experiment with it?

Next time you are criticising yourself, ask yourself:

  • Is this useful to me?
  • How is this paying off for me now or in the longer term?
  • Would a different approach be more useful to me?
  • What would that be?

And next time you feel good about what you have done, appreciate your own brilliance and give yourself a treat!