“Q” is for Questioning

When faced with troubled times, a natural response is to question what is happening and find ways to “fix” it. The hope is that through finding answers, the turbulence will calm, or the difficult situation will improve. For the ABC’s of Living Well, I have selected “Questioning” for the letter “Q”. When we don’t feel well, or when we are caregiving for someone in declining health, asking a good question at the right time can mean the difference between suffering and comfort. This post will explore some concepts to support questioning as a life-affirming practice to help alleviate suffering and instill comfort for ourselves, for care recipients, and caregivers.  

When we acknowledge that something is medically troubling, and requires an assessment or support, asking good questions can help us move forward with grace. In my experience with care recipients who are receiving medical treatment for serious illness and/or those who are in palliative or hospice programs, questions are part of daily life. Sometimes they are fired off by patients or family members in chaotic medical settings and situations. One way to avoid chaos is have an organized way to track and record questions and answers. That way, when it’s time for a doctor visit, lab tests, or therapy appointments, the patient can be prepared with clear, relevant questions. A notebook or tablet can serve this purpose well when each entry has a date and time reference.

If medical conditions are serious, families may want to consider exploring The Conversation Project. A nonprofit organization hosts this project that is designed to help people express and share their wishes for healthcare through the end of life. The website resources include a roster of important documents that offer questions about how to “start the conversation” (about end-of-life care); how to choose or be a healthcare proxy; how to talk to the healthcare team; how to discuss care needs for those with dementia; and more. This is a practical and compassionate guide to outlining what matters most when faced with life-limiting illness or gradual decline. Completing documents such as these or The Five Wishes, takes the guess work out of providing care, when the patient cannot communicate due to coma or other medical reasons. Having answers to important questions ahead of time will ensure peace of mind for patients and their loved ones.

How to formulate a good question is a concept often taught by motivational speakers and life coaches. Many suggest that we can train our brains to formulate questions that generate life-affirming, balanced answers that will draw from both practical and creative internal thinking processes. The key is in the way the question is formulated.

Author and entrepreneur, Tony Robbins suggests that asking positive questions will net positive answers. A question formed in a negative way will affirm a victim mentality and is self-defeating. A question formed in a positive way is empowering and life-affirming. Additionally, Dr. Richard Bartlett (Matrix Energetics ™) suggests that asking “why” questions will not garner as many helpful solutions as asking the more open-ended “what is useful” question. In combining these two concepts, we have a great strategy for exploration through the practice of questioning. Here are a few examples to get you started:

Example #1

  • Negative “why” question for self
    • Q: Why do I fail this test every time?
    • A:  I fail it every time because I never learned the material in the first place; I don’t have the aptitude for chemistry; I am bad with numbers; I hate chemistry; I can’t focus, I’m not cut out for this, I’m tired, etc.
  • Positive “what is useful” question for self
    • Q: What would be useful to help me pass this test?
    • A: A tutor may be able to help me to understand what I have been missing in studying on my own; I need to study when I am fresh and alert; I can create a way to remember the concepts using visual cues, like flash cards; join a study group; etc.

Example #2

  • Negative “why” question for caregivers
    • Q: Why is it so hard and exhausting to take care of mother?
    • A: It’s hard because I work all day and then have to care for her; she’s so frail and doesn’t communicate; I’m so tired, overwhelmed, and alone in this; I have to take care of the kids too; I never have time for myself; I can’t sleep, etc.
  • Positive “what is useful” question for caregivers
    • Q: How can I take care of mother in a way that supports my own well -being?
    • A:  I can ask a neighbor to pick up her meds or come visit her; I can listen to music with mother that we both enjoy; I can schedule some “me” time; call the senior center about local resources; attend a virtual support group; go to counseling; take 5 minutes to just breathe; practice tai chi or yoga, etc.

Example #3

  • Negative “why” question for patients
    • Q: Why am I in so much pain?
    • A: I’m in pain because my meds are wrong; the chemo failed; my doctors are not helping; my body is falling apart; the medical system is broken; etc.
  • Positive “what is useful” question for patients
    • Q: What would help to reduce my pain and bring me more comfort?
    • A:  I can ask my family or a friend to advocate for me; I can ask for a medication adjustment, new treatment protocol, different bed, etc.; I can try to meditate; request a palliative consultation; get a second opinion; investigate Reiki, music therapy, or other natural healing modalities; etc.

If you are a caregiver, remember to support the patient by asking positive, open-ended questions: What can I do to make you more comfortable now? Is there anything you need to express before you sleep tonight? Do you want to say more about those fears or concerns? You can apply this formula to a group caregiving team as well: How can we work together to best serve the patient? What do I need to do to be an effective team member? What are the best ways to offer support to each other and the patient right now? What needs might be difficult to meet, and what can we do to stay ahead of those situations?

Sometimes at the end of life, a care recipient may not respond to your questions, no matter how kind, open, and thoughtful the questions may be. Careful listening and observation of bodily cues will help you to know what is needed. Your dear one may be withdrawing due to a feeling of completion; no needs to be fulfilled, no comments to share. They may be in a transitional state where things “of this world” are no longer relevant. If the patient is nonverbal, watch for pain signals and provide comfort measures as per the patient’s wishes. If pain and anxiety are well managed, practicing silent, compassionate presence is the way to remain in connection and in service. In this case, questions you pose may remain unanswered; becoming part of the great mystery that the dying process imparts. While this may be difficult, call on the allies of courage, fortitude, and trust in those moments; seek additional grief support as needed.

During stressful times, don’t forget to ask good questions about how to care for yourself. Try an “awareness check” by asking yourself how you are doing emotionally, physically, spiritually, or mentally. If you notice pain, discomfort, or suffering on any level, ask yourself, what do I need right now to find peace or alleviate suffering? The answers may be numerous, or as simple as taking a few deep breaths. If you are faced with a very difficult situation, consider that you may not be called to “DO” anything other than to quietly “hold space”. If you do not know what holding space means, or how to do it, let me know. I offer a holding space training on request. Meanwhile, this article by Heather Plett, author of The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership, will provide a beautiful introduction and explanation.

Thank you for sharing time with me today. Feel free to leave a comment below or drop me a note at Aleia@furthershore.org describing how asking good questions has helped you to live well.

3 thoughts on ““Q” is for Questioning”

  1. Aleia, this is another gem. Thank you for this thorough information on such an important topic. I hope you will publish the complete alphabet, there has been so much vital information, I would love to have it all together as a reference for those times.


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