The Power of a Good Question

There is a passage of Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal that has stayed with me since I read the book more than two years ago. The book is about aging and how we might approach the end of life better. In the passage I am thinking of, Gawande talks about the value of asking someone who is nearing the end of their life what is “enough” for them—what they need from life to think it is worth continuing to undergo treatments to prolong it. The idea is that this helps guide decisions about when to pursue life-prolonging treatments and when to instead focus on maximizing the enjoyment of the days that are left. One of the people he writes about would be happy as long as he could eat a bowl of ice cream and watch football. Gawande’s own father, when faced with a tumor in his spinal cord, says he needs more. He does not want to become a quadriplegic. He does not want to be unable to care for himself.

The point isn’t that one answer is better than the other. It is that each person has their own answer, and that if you know what the answer is, it will be easier to make good decisions about treatment.

I think this section has stayed with me in part because it is an example of the sort of decision-clarifying question that I look for when making any type of decision. As Gawande explains in the book, knowing the answer to this question makes the answer to certain treatment decisions obvious. 

This passage has stayed with me because it is such a thought-provoking question, but also because it is an excellent example of the power of a good question. I’ve written before about how important the ability to get decisions made is for a project manager. In that post, I discussed a few methods I use to help people make decisions. Asking questions was one of the techniques I mentioned, and rightly so. The example I gave (deciding whether to make cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving dinner) was pretty trivial. Gawande’s question shows that sometimes the question you ask is profound, and that the answer might not always be obvious.

In the years since I read that book, I have come to think that the “find a clarifying question” approach to decision-making is the best method to use. It isn’t always available, because you can’t always find that clarifying question. But if you can find a good clarifying question for the decision you need to make, chances are you will make a good decision. Not only that, but I think the people involved are more likely to feel like it was the right decision and will second guess the decision less.

Now, when faced with a tough decision, I start by looking for the right question to ask. It isn’t an easy method, but it has served me well!

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