May 2010
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TD Magazine

Marilee Adams

Adams is the best-selling author of Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 7 Powerful Tools for Life and Work, which highlights the Question Thinking™ methodologies, of which she is the originator. The Inquiry Institute is a coaching, consulting, and educational organization that she founded and heads, which also helps disseminate her work. Through it, she works as a consultant, executive coach, facilitator, and professional speaker. She has also authored a textbook called The Art of the Question: A Guide to Short-Term Question-Centered Therapy, and has contributed chapters to other books on appreciative inquiry and action learning, as well as being a guest blogger for Experience Life Magazine.

In addition, Adams is an adjunct professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs in its Key Executive Leadership program and is affiliated with Columbia University’s Teachers College and its Global Learning and Leadership Initiative (GLLI).

Q| Can you briefly explain the Question Thinking methodologies, and the history behind them?

Question Thinking is actually a theory that posits that thinking occurs as an internal question-and-answer process. What people typically think of as statements are actually answers to questions that they've asked themselves. That links questions and statements, which are the two parts of language, in relation to each other. If you think of a statement as an answer to a question, then it starts to get very important and interesting to notice what questions are being asked. Because questions basically program and direct how we think, feel, behave,relate, and even the results and outcomes we get.

If we can notice the questions that we're asking ourselves, then we can learn to analyze them for which ones are effective and which ones may not be, and learn the skills and tools for revising the questions if we want different results. Then we have a methodology that can basically be used anywhere for anything because we're always thinking, speaking, and listening. It becomes a theory of thinking that's also linguistic, with roots that are cognitive, psychological, and ontological, and it turns into a very practical method. When you point it out to people and they can see how it works, it becomes kind of obvious. It's a way of operationalizing thinking, and thinking is at the core of behavioral change. If you want a behavioral change that lasts, then it needs to be preceded by a change in thinking that is sustainable, and this gives an entry for doing that.

In terms of the history, my background is in psychology and psychotherapy. In 1998, I wrote and published a cognitive behavioral textbook, and the roots of all of this work are in it. At that point, I intentionally left the field of psychology and started working with organizations, coaching, and culture, and discovered how well the material played in all of those settings. So my understanding of these methodologies came from doing some of this work cognitively in workshops and doing change work with people individually. I noticed certain correlations in how people think, and I was fortunate to have some training in language in terms of thinking, and so I began noticing the patterns.

Originally, I was working with the Mindset model (which is now called the Learner-Judger model), but I realized that, linguistically, there were two different mindsets, mainly in terms of the kinds of questions that are asked, as well as the quantity and quality of questions. I began seeing that there's a mindset for effectiveness and ineffectiveness (originally, I called it the Fixed Self and the Effective Self), and I saw that the language for each was really different. Then I just got fascinated by the questioning aspect of it, and dove in and worked my way into developing this theory that turns out to be fairly coherent and widely applicable.

Q| Do you think there are any applications of the question-centered theory that have not been explored yet?

A: Question Thinking is a theory that is grounded in language, and a way of conceptualizing and operationalizing thinking, speaking, and listening. If you look at it from that perspective, it's either the case everywhere or nowhere. What has been quite fascinating for me is to observe the different places that people are using it.

Let's make a false separation between the personal and professional worlds. Let's say you're talking about an organization. You've got leadership, management, coaching, culture, teams, communications, sales, marketing, and all of those things. What is interesting is you can take some of the Question Thinking methods and use them in each of those situations, and in a different way. Because, of course, the goals and the functions of each of those are different, but it turns out that there are some ways of thinking, speaking, and listening that work in all of them. In the world of work, I haven't seen one place where it doesn't apply, though I would be fascinated to discover that and understand.

In terms of the personal world, there are generally relationships, families, and communication. What I'm fascinated by is how to elaborate new practices, tools, and applications for using these methodologies in each of those cases.

I'm also very committed to doing some formal research on all of this - I think that's really critical. There's an alignment between this work and positive psychology, Appreciative Inquiry, learning organizations, and emotional intelligence. The interface between Question Thinking and these fields could be rich for exploration and could make a difference. I'm fascinated by the new work in neuroplasticity - what we're learning about the brain and how it all relates to these areas.

Q| What inspired you to start the Inquiry Institute?

It took me a little while to evolve into it because when I left the fields of psychology and therapy, I wasn't sure exactly how it was all going to turn out. But I thought that there was a very compelling possibility that the work I was developing would have an application in all the different places that we've been talking about. In 2002, I formalized it into an organization. The organization delivers learning and training programs, coaching services, job aids, tools, and products that support people who are developing these thinking and interacting skills. Much of my focus right now is to develop more vehicles that people can use on their own as well as in person.

I mentioned earlier that the first book I published was a thick textbook called The Art of the Question, and I realized that I needed a book that would make the theory more accessible. That is why I wrote Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, which came out in 2004. That book became a word of mouth bestseller because I never marketed it much, but at this point it's sold almost 80,000 copies and it's in 12 languages. I had no idea who was buying it or what was happening, but I started getting emails from people from all over the world - India, Singapore, British Columbia, and Australia - and they were reporting that they were using the material. That began to show me is that there's a good chance the theory is on target. Secondly, if it's making that much difference with the book, then I could develop other vehicles for people to deepen and expand.

What I'm doing right now is exploring the same things as everybody else: blended learning, e-learning, and ways that people can really more practical everyday facility with Question Thinking. Because it seems to work, I feel like I have a responsibility to develop it into different forms, where people can utilize it and benefit from it, and that's a really fascinating, ongoing enterprise. I want to research what happens, and I'm working with some organizations that want to use the material for culture change, and that's a very rich place to be able to track what's happening both in a qualitative and quantitative way. That's really a lot of my focus now, to develop it into more vehicles of delivering and learning and then be able to track it and see how to make it better and see how it relates to fields such as positive psychology and Appreciative Inquiry, and where the interfaces lie. In other words, I don't see this work as being singular. I see it as complementary and supplementary to what else is out there. My goal is to find the places of interface where this can contribute to some of the good work that's already being done.


Q| Do you have any memorable experiences from your work consulting with organizations?

I'm thinking of a hospital that called me up and said, "Hi! Can we buy 125 copies of your book?" And I said, "Yes, we could figure that out, but what do you want them for?"


I was really very curious about what they were going to do with them. It turned out people on the executive team had read the book, and they thought that it could be really useful for the culture of their hospital. I said, "Well, that's wonderful, and if you, as an executive team, want to champion this effort, then you also have to model it."

That led to spending two days with their team really getting some traction with the material, and then we talked about how to leverage the book into the culture of the organization. I did that training this past December and then I had a meeting four months later to talk about what happened.

So the Choice Map is an illustration in Change Your Questions, Change Your Life that illustrates the different paths that our mindsets can take, the different questions that are aligned with each, and how that ends up. And it talks about a Learner Mindset and a Judger Mindset. One of the stories they told which delighted me was when they described a situation where there were two nurses on a particular unit who got into a conflict about something, and they took out the Choice Map and they figured it out. When you watch the work work, it's just so satisfying to me. It made a behavioral difference. That's the kind of thing that really affects culture; when you can shift people's thinking and behavior or you provide ways for them to shift their own behavior, and it works and it's self-reinforcing.

Q| What is one change you'd like to see in the field of workplace learning and performance within the next decade?

If you listen to how people communicate, and I mean across the board from leadership to management to teams, the ratio of questions to statements typically involves much more telling than asking. If I were to guesstimate a ratio, it's probably 70 to 80 percent telling, and 20 to 30 percent asking. I'd like to reverse the ratio. If people were asking more and telling less, that would imply that they were listening better, were more collaborative, were more open to learning, and were more willing and able to make changes. Even changing the ratio to 50 percent telling and 50 percent asking would make a huge difference.

Q| How have your experiences been teaching your Question Thinking methodologies on a global scale?

I am limited to English, and I do consider that a limitation. There are cultures where question asking is really not considered desirable, and there needs to be a sensitivity to that. Having said that, a lot of cultures where you might think people might not grab onto this information, I end up getting emails, calls, and letters from people. I've had the privilege of speaking in other countries and cultures both in person and by teleconference and video. The way that this material is conceptualized seems to resonate with people.

There's another aspect to all this that I think is really useful. What I was just talking about is interpersonal questions: questions that one person asks another person out loud. But I believe that the way that question thinking works is that everybody asks themselves questions. So there's a way to position this so that people can become better observers of their own questions and get some internal benefit from changing them if they want different results. A lot of what I'd do in different cultures focuses more on the Question Thinking aspect that allows people the privacy and the respect that allows them to make some changes without having to talk about it out loud so much. This is an incredibly important area that I'd like to explore, which will require lots of collaborators, but that's part of the fun of it.

Q| Are you working on any new books or projects?

I am working on a new book. I have another contract with Berrett-Koehler, and they published Change Your Questions, Change Your Life. The new book is going to be a deepening of Question Thinking and it's also going to explore inquiring leadership. The title of the last chapter of Change Your Questions, Change Your Life is "The Inquiring Leader."

I am also an adjunct professor at American University in the School of Public Affairs teaching leadership. I use Question Thinking as a foundation in the work I do there and teaching in that setting is incredibly satisfying. It's an honor to be able to make a difference for people in government, and I really enjoy it.

Q| How do you enjoy spending your free time?

My husband is an artist, as well as a psychologist and coach. We spend a lot of time in museums and galleries, and we do some traveling. Sometimes it's really wonderful to just be still - either to be a homebody and hang out with the dogs, or to walk and exercise. I enjoy being outside; I'm just so relieved that it's Spring.

I spend a lot of my free time reading. I'd also like to begin exploring doing some work with mandalas and doing a little painting myself, as well as some reading and writing, and a little poetry. I have enough interests and enough curiosity to last many lifetimes. I think it's exciting. It's hard for me to understand when people talk about being bored because there's just so much here.

About the Author
The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.
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