Some questions are meant to increase our awareness about where we are and encourage us to learn from our experience. However, the way a question is formulated can make a huge difference in what you get out of it. This is applicable both to asking the question as a trainer or asking the question from yourself when self-reflecting.
In fact, there is a class of such questions called reflections on past performance. Here, you will be introduced to these questions and will see how to formulate them correctly for the best results.
To start, consider the following questions:
- “What would I have done differently if I could go back?”
- “Knowing what I know now, if I go back to start all over again, what would I do?”
- “If I know everything I know now and could come back as a 10 years old, what would I do?”
Give them a try. Start thinking about your past and go back in time. Why did you make the decision to pursue a particular career? Why did you choose to study a particular field? What would have happened if you could avoid the argument with your boss the other week? How would it have been if you didn’t have to bring up children?
Now, ask yourself how you feel. Most probably you feel very negative. You are constantly regretting what you have done or trying hard to avoid accepting what you have done wrong. Generally, these “what if” questions will only make you feel bad about the past without helping your future. On the outset they look like valid reflective questions that will help you to understand yourself and learn from your experience. In reality, they only make you feel regretful.
Unfortunately, this style of questioning is very common and we all fall for it. Statements such as these come to our mind all the time, “What if I hadn’t done that?”, “What if I hadn’t said that”, “What if I had got the other job?”, “What if we had bought the other house?”
A particularly bad question is one such as “what if I could go back to being a child again so that I could do things differently?” The problem with this question is that it assumes you take back your current experience with you so that you can make a decision based on what you know now.
This doesn’t really help much as you didn’t have the experience you have now. You made a decision based on your previous experience and knowledge. There is no point to feel regretful now that you know better.
The only thing you should worry about is to make a mistake twice.
How to Improve
The wrong way to approach these questions is to try to avoid them altogether as unfortunately some experts suggest. This can be difficult as we are consummate decision makers and it is only natural to constantly question every single decision made. It is part of the process of improving decision making with the main aim to improve quality of life.
Hence, instead of trying to avoid such questions, aim to refocus the questions from past to future. Past is gone; all you have left is the future. By focusing on future and systematically formulating your questions with a bias on future, you will get a lot more out of your self-reflection.
Here are some examples.
- “Knowing what I know now, what would I do in the future?”
- “Considering my decision to choose this job, what would I do differently when choosing a job again in the future?”
- “Knowing what I have learned in the past 5 years of doing this business, what should I focus on in the next five years?”
- “Now that I know what happens if I argue with my boss, how should I approach him the next time when there is an issue that needs to be raised?”
Remember, always aim to formulate your questions in a way that point you towards future actions, not what has happened already. Past is gone and will not be back again. All you should care about is the future.