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  • Scott Bowman

What is your problem? (How to ask the right question)

Ever ask yourself that question - ‘What IS my problem?’

I do.

I seethe with it when I’m frustrated with myself. Or I’ll yell it at someone else when they cut me off in traffic, “Hey a$#*le! What’s your problem!?” Equally useless on both occasions.

What is my problem?

It’s not such a terrible question. Actually it’s simultaneously a really great question, and a really bad question. It’s a great question because it is, so often, the RIGHT question. But it’s also a bad question because so often when we ask it, we ask it rhetorically.

A rhetorical question is when you ask a question without expecting an answer - basically it’s for when you want to be a dick to someone but you want them to have to figure that out for themselves.

That’s how we use that question when we ‘ask’ it of ourselves. When it’s rhetorical, it serves as a large, invisible stick, with which we beat ourselves about the head and personality. The funny thing about that, is that the underlying message is not that we have a problem that needs to be solved - that’s not the problem - but rather that we have a problem at all - and THAT is a huge problem.

Know what I mean? “What IS MY PROBLEM?”

Ironically, the problem of having a problem is itself... well, problematic. Within that perspective, only defective things have problems, yes? So it becomes, not so much a statement that there is a problem (which admits the possibility of solution), but a rather a ‘recognition’ of a defect - which admits to no solution.

That’s what we are doing when we ask ourselves “What’s my problem?” We are saying, “I am a defective cow, and a disappointment to my forebears and countrymen.’ (...local dialects may differ).

It’s even a bad question when it’s not rhetorical.

Here’s why.

Maybe I say to myself “I’m really acting out and and being an ass to my partner. What IS my problem?” Notice how any answer to that question will be useless or worse. Maybe I can’t control my anger, maybe I’m frightened. Maybe I communicate poorly, or maybe I’m an abuser. Maybe I’m just weak and have no willpower.... No answer to that question that will actually help me. But they all look like they might. So I keep coming up with more and more answers in the hopes the next one will help.

The question creates an inquiry which produces an endless list of problems I might have (or actually have) that may answer the question, or may not. But what I’m left with is a list as long as my arm of reasons why I suck, and no action to take.

That’s the hallmark of a bad question.

After this kind of introspection, and a long review of all the possible reasons I might be so stupid, recalcitrant, ill-informed, flawed, or generally fucked as to have this problem at all, I generally feel like sewage. How about you?

Not a good result.

Nevertheless “What is my problem?” is often a great question, an enormously powerful question - but there’s a trick. Know that, while this is the right question to start with, it’s not the right question to answer.


Here’s a simple procedure to find a better question. And we’ll see when we’re done, the truly staggering difference between a bad question, a good question, and the RIGHT question. So, the steps:

  1. Recognize that you are asking yourself the “What’s my problem?” question.

  2. Acknowledge that if you are asking this question, you do in fact have a problem.

  3. Realize that, if you are asking this question - you don’t yet know what that problem is.

  4. Assume you know nothing at all about this problem.

  5. State the End Goal you are wanting.

  6. Describe the Process of getting from here to there - the pipeline to the goal.

  7. Name the Breakdown - where does the water stop moving through that pipe?

  8. List the Circumstances influencing or surrounding that breakdown.

  9. Create Questions that address those circumstances relative to your goal

  10. Rinse and Repeat until you discover the RIGHT question.

Simple, right?

Okay it may seem a bit long, but it is very simple. Let’s walk through it.

“Damn it! I just lost my cool again and yelled at my wife. What’s the matter with me?”

1. Realize you are asking yourself the “What’s my problem?” question.

It seems obvious, but often goes by unnoticed - part of our background thinking that we’re so used to we don’t see that we’re doing it. Here it’s a variant of the question that’s running through the mind.

The value of such a simple step is that it stops the automatic process. This is what allows us to do something different.

2. Acknowledge that if you are asking this question, you do in fact have a problem

“If I’m yelling at my wife, something’s not right.”

We don’t ask the ‘what’s my problem?’ question for nothing. Resist the temptation to make yourself wrong for asking the question and trying to convince yourself you are in fact without problems and should look on the bright side, be grateful you are not a goat, but are rather a perfect, if momentarily unhappy, little you.

There is a grain of truth in almost every hyperbolic and inaccurate emotional response we have, though it is seldom apparent or easily accessible. Trust your gut sense that something is out of whack (but don’t trust it to tell you what that actually might be).

3. Realize that, if you are asking this question - you don’t yet know what your problem is.

“I love my wife - If I really knew why I was losing control and yelling at her I’d be working on fixing it right now.”

This is a big one. This is the difference between believing you are a hopeless twat, and realizing that you have some important work to do. This is where we step into our power. “There is something here I can do something about - I just don’t know what it is yet.”

4. Assume you know nothing at all about this problem.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Not only do you not know what your problem is - you are probably making a lot of bad assumptions about it - not only what it is, but where it is, when it is, why it is and likely how big it is.

We form assumptions very quickly and it can be difficult to let them all go or even recognize what they are. It’s helpful to list out the assumptions we are making, as unhelpful ideas that you are going to set aside for the time being.

“Okay, so for the moment let’s assume I’m not an irrepressible assholic, thin skinned rage monster, jerk, dufus-faced, abusive, intolerant cretin. Maybe I don’t really know what’s going on at all.”

5. State the End Goal you are wanting.

The important thing here is to name the what you are wanting in the end - not the absence or presence of something along the way.

“What I really want here is to not be angry all the time. No, that’s silly - I’m not angry all the time, and I’m going to get angry sometimes - what I want is to be able to control my anger. ...well, no, no I guess that’s not the thing I’m really wanting either. I want to have a joyful relationship with my wife.”

The end-goal is not always obvious. And almost everything can be a step to something else. But you’ll know you’re there when you have a deep and settling feeling of stillness when you name it. You can see how our guy in the example would feel that when naming his goal.

If you genuinely can’t figure out the end goal you are wanting - you’ve found your problem. In that case a good question is - “What, if I had it, or could be it, in this situation, would be deeply and authentically satisfying to me?

6. Describe the process of getting from here to there - the pipeline to the goal.

This is working out all the basic steps between you and your goal. Sometimes this will be really clear and sometimes it will be less so. Identifying the whole process is important - it’s really easy to think you are in a much smaller process than you are.

“Describe the process? Well, I get upset, then I yell at my wife, or rather I get upset, then I have joy with my wife? That doesn’t sound like much of a process.

Ok - how do I get upset? I’m tired usually. Why? I worked all day - yeah, I don’t get upset on the weekends. This usually happens after a long day of work and I get home and... I checked my email! That’s what happened, I worked a long day, got home, was trying to unwind, saw that stupid email from Greg and then my wife stepped on my foot, ...then I have a joyful relationshiop with my wife, right?


So my process is; I go to work, I come home, I try to unwind, my wife steps on my foot (or the cat vomits, or the kid cries, or the computer crashes or what have you), and then I have a joyful relationship with my wife. Hmph”

This is another step where, if you don’t understand the process to reach your goal, that’s most likely your actual problem. In that case a good question might be ‘What sequence of steps would guarantee that I reach my goal?’

7. Name the Breakdown - where does the water stop moving through that pipe?

At what point does the train go off the rails? Where along the process do you stop moving toward your goal. Usually this is pretty obvious - sometimes not so much.

“My breakdown happens after work when someone steps on my foot, vomits on my carpet, yells in my ear, makes my computer go berserk or drops something loudly. That’s when the whole joyful relationship thing goes out the window.”

8. List the Circumstances influencing or surrounding that breakdown.

Do this step as a brainstorming, trying to list as many circumstances as you can rather than trying to find the right circumstance.

“Well, there was that email from Greg - so I guess one circumstance is I checked my email. And I always do that at some point. There’s my wife stepping on my foot, in heels no less, frickin spike heels! But that’s variable, right? Could be the cat vomit from the other day, or... yeah, any number of things. But there’s an irritant. Let’s see, there’s the state I’m in when I’m coming home... I’m tired. But not physically tired... I mean I don’t move all day. I just sit behind a desk. Don’t know why I’d be tired. But clearly I am.

I’m also yelling some particular things when I lose it - so it seems like I might be harboring some resentments too.”

This is a process of trying to uncover everything that might be impacting the breakdown. Can you feel that we’re getting close to some good questions? You are probably already coming up with a list of things our guy might try. After listing the circumstances we’re ready to...

9. Create Questions that address those circumstances relative to your goal

This also is a brainstorming activity, where you are simply to connect the circumstances you identified with your goal.

“Let’s see... how can I show up at home not tired? How can I increase my emotional resilience? How can I deal with irritants better? What do I have to do to not check my email at home after work? How can I let my wife know about things that are bothering me before blowing up? Can I come home in a different way? Would meditation help me deal with getting angry? Or anger management? Or therapy? Maybe if I had a better day at work first... How can I leave work in a better mood - what would I need to do? What are some better ways of letting my wife know what’s going on for me?"

Can you see how much more productive these questions are than our original ‘What’s my problem?” Each of them would produce a list of potential answers that would actually help, and have our guy feel

empowered rather than like potato slime. Now we’re into productive questions - good questions.

10. Rinse and Repeat until you discover the RIGHT question.

Okay - just to say it, there is no “right’ question. But there will come a question that feels different. It will be settling just to look at it. It will remind you of what’s important and how important you are. But it’s most salient feature is that it will start producing solution ideas immediately and productively.

“...what do I need, for myself, so that I am happy to be home and totally ready to spend the evening with my family?"

That’s the right question.


Politicians, you’ll notice, seldom answer the question they were asked. Instead they answer one of their own. They do this because questions control the conversion, and by extension, the range of things you can think about. It’s an annoying tactic.

I hate it when they do that.

But the example is a true one. Control the question and you control the conversation. This works when you are a politician trying to manage a press conference or just an ordinary dude or dudette trying to manage your own mind.

It is the questions we ask ourselves that govern what we will think about, and what we can do as a consequence. It is the questions we ask that either lift us into new ideas and possibilities, or lock us in old patterns and behaviors.

Good questions - bad questions. Get to know the difference.

The answers, after all, can only be as good as the question they meet. So for all of us so trained to value answers... it’s time to start paying attention to the questions.

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