When Did You Stop Sniffing Glue?

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A few days ago, Chris Brogan posed an interesting question on twitter:

Then, the next day, another friend, Charlie Gilkey, asked:

Now, I get that these two very wise guys were asking these questions on two levels….

One, because they wanted to see how you’d answer. And, two, because they wanted to:

Incite those who saw the question to examine their assumptions.

And, probably, three, they wanted to see how many people would go that deep (at least, that’s what I’d really be curious about).

Thing is, within Chris’ and Charlie’s questions lie a bigger lesson.

It’s about the questions we ask ourselves every day. Because the WAY you frame the questions you ask yourself often determines not only what your perceived options are, but what your final answer will be. And, if you’re not too careful, your questions may lock you into false answers, actions and beliefs.

What does THAT mean?

Okay, let me don my rather rusty recovering lawyer‘s hat for a bit.

In the law, there’s a principle, actually its the basis of a courtroom objection, called “assuming facts not in evidence.” In regular-people-speak, that means phrasing a question in a way that assumes certain facts or circumstances that have not yet been introduced, proven and, in fact, may be entirely false.

In NLP, these are given yet another fancy name – presuppositions. And, certain practitioners intentionally load up questions and statements with presuppositions because they know it overloads a certain part of the brain (more on this in a future post) and drops you into a far more suggestable state.

The title of this post does that. As do Chris and Charlie’s questions.

So, when I asked:

“When did you stop sniffing glue,”

I assumed a bunch of facts that are likely (I hope) not true. Among those are:

  • At some point in the past, you sniffed glue
  • You’ve now stopped sniffing glue

Looking at Chris’ question –

Would you take obscurity and wealth over social engagement and struggling?

…the main assumed facts are:

  • You know what obscurity, wealth, social engagement and struggling mean
  • You can have obscurity and wealth OR social engagement and struggling, BUT not both
  • You would choose either over some other unmentioned option

And, with Charlie’s question –

Would you rather have a page that converts at 10% but repels the rest or converts at 2% but keeps the funnel open?

The primary assumptions are:

  • You know what a page that converts and a funnel are.
  • You can have a page that converts at 10% but repels OR one that converts at 2% but keeps the funnel open BUT you cannot have both
  • You have to choose either over some other unmentioned option.

Now, what happens if we test the assumptions underlying each of the three questions?

We find out most are somewhere between dead wrong kinda wrong. They assume facts aren’t true and present answer choices as if they were your ONLY choices when, in fact, there are myriad others. That makes the questions themselves loaded and largely unanswerable, as is.

When you drill down to the assumptions, it becomes pretty clear, pretty quickly…you’ve been set up.

That’s not a bad thing in the context of Chris’ and Charlie’s questions. Because part of their intent was to make you think. To make you question the question.

Problem is, in daily life, a whole lot of people never drill down and test the assumptions that underlie the questions they ask themselves every day.

They just accept the questions as is. And, in doing so, they never discover how they’re setting themselves up. How they’re limiting their answers to the ones framed by the questions. And, ending up somewhere between confused, boxed-in and paralyzed.

The classic career question that does this is:

Would you rather be rich but bored silly or poor but love your work?

The question assumes you can’t be rich AND love your work. And, if you don’t kick the question’s tires, you fall into the trap of assuming the two options presented are your only ones.

So, my question for you is…

Have you stopped asking questions that give you bad answers yet?

Maybe, it’s time to kick the tires…

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22 responses

22 responses to “When Did You Stop Sniffing Glue?”

  1. I’ll probably dig more into NLP, the stuff you are presenting here sounds very interesting. The examples here are quite obvious, but I am eager to find some more that have been hidden under surface. I am sure there are lots of them.

  2. Charlie says:

    I loved this post, Jonathan – and not just because I’m in it. I enjoyed the Twitter conversation last week, too.

    You’re dead on that my point was to ask a discursive point that made people question a lot of assumptions. As it always happens, once people started asking questions and having a conversation about it, I started getting new ideas to think about.

    As a general rule, any time you feel absolutely certain about the answer to a complex question, it’s probably time to ask the question in a different way – you’re probably missing something.

    • nima says:

      It seems like our friend Chris made that same mistake again. “Complex question ” . that’s assuming that you know it’s a complex question. I would rather take a part my complex question to simple one. Or again did I just assume I that I simplified my complex question to “simple” ones?
      I do appreciate the brilliant note though.

  3. Annemieke says:

    Interesting post. Actually I think there is a lot of value in asking such questions. But mainly to ask those questions to yourself to find out what exactly you want your next step to be at a certain crossroad (don’t know if that is an expression in English).

    Asking them without context might seem like a waste of time. Like the first question might not be a useful question for someone who is not interested in social media, but is very interested in getting rich, or the other way around.

    But if someone has some deep down feeling of something that he has to do, it might be good to ask yourself such a question at some point, to know if it is still the right way to go.

    And sometimes surprise yourself with the answer.

  4. Adrian Munday says:

    I try using this on my children the whole time ‘would you rather go to bed now with a story or in ten minutes without a story.’ Funny how a 5 year old spots the presuppositions straight away!!

  5. Hi Jonathan.

    Cool concept here. The questions they posed sure did get a few folks thinking, and for the reasons you detailed here. It is cool that you detailed the parts and broke them down, because our minds sort of do that, but not fully.

    There sure are pre-supposed items in those questions that can completely affect our answers if we don’t realize that they are there. This makes me think that maybe some of our self-made questions to ourselves also have such presuppositions. Those would be good to cut out, if noticed.

  6. Presuppositions, as well as assumptions in general, have no business when you’re planning a career or a business, at least in my mind. I know, though, that most businesses don’t really operate without assumptions. I know I’ve lost clients in the past because they’ve come to me with an assumption about what they needed from me. If I try to suggest another approach to solve the same problem, they’ll walk.

    Finding a way to move past presuppositions is definitely not easy, but is necessary.

  7. Hulbert says:

    Great thoughts Johnathan. Many people go through life asking either-or questions when the answers can be both or neither. I like the examples you show us here and how the questioners make people assume there is only one answer to the question.

    As for jobs, I think it is possible to have enjoy your work and make a lot of money at the same time. But most people will think that people who make a lot of money work grueling hours at a job they hate or people who love their job make only make enough money to pay their rent. It can really be both; but it’s just a matter of thinking outside of the box.

  8. I love using questions like this to learn what people are thinking, what drives them. Usually, I like it when they say “What a stupid question; I want time with my family AND enough money to live on; why should I choose?” to which I say “Bingo!”

    Someone just gave me a huge shove Monday; asked why I wasn’t making a great living using the music I love to write and perform. But all my life, I’ve ‘asked’ myself, do you wanna be a musician, or do you wanna make a living?

    Um, both? I wanna make a living using music to help people think and feel better.

  9. Coach T.I.A says:

    YES!! Love how you broke down the assumptions and presupps!

    My 1st response to these questions was “na-ah not gonna go down that road at all cos I can have this AND that”. So I refuse to answer hypothetical questions with an either – or element and route right back to and – and.

    I ask GOOD questions (except for when I’m in a funk, then I’ll rail against the world till I get my groove back) like “Why am I so happy AND rich!”? “Why do I really have it all?”

    Time we learned to ask the right questions. Cheers!

    Tia @TiaSparkles

  10. Great post Jonathan,

    As a professional question tire-kicker, it’s interesting to see examples of presuppositional limitations popping up in the online world.

    One of the weird/annoying ones that I hear all the time is:

    “Why can’t I… do/have/be ”

    I always ask clients to think about THE ANSWER to such a question. The answer is not only useless, it’s dangerous!

    The only possible, honest response would be a list of reasons why you can’t get what you want….
    … Not a good list to be meditating on.

    That said, asking “How can I….” is a very useful question.

    Our unconscious mind always finds some seriously creative methods to do achieve the impossible… if only we can (consciously) frame the right question first.

    – Pete @petershallard

  11. Jim Bruce says:

    This is a good post Johnathan… We all ask questions through life that lead us in the direction we should be going… except some people that ask the wrong questions… Never sniffed glue… but in my late 50’s I feel sometimes like I am sniffing the stuff…

  12. Karanime says:

    Eep. I disagree that that’s the point they were both trying to make.

    Both are questions about your priorities. In the first, it’s asking what’s more important, being wealthy or being known. You can have both, but the question isn’t about what you can or can’t have. That’s the point of a hypothetical. It’s about IF that were the case, which would you choose?

    The second’s pretty similar. What’s more important, certainty, or possibility?

    I know, the point of the post was to stop asking questions that would trap you–Great topic, and for said topic, great post. Just use better examples next time. ^.^;


  13. Lain says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever had to think so hard when reading a blog post. The wheels were grinding and smoking a bit as they turned, but they were definitely turning!

    Thanks for telling us why — and how — to take the chains off.


  14. Dave Soucy says:

    Great topic Jonathan. I face this often when I work with weight loss clients who come in with the (false) assumption that they can lose weight but not eat the food they like, or they can eat the food they like and be overweight. For many reasons, they don’t believe that they can have both and have set themselves up to believe they have to make that either/or choice.
    The ones who succeed are the clients who really dig deeper and learn that there are other choices to be made.


  15. Ah, presuppositions…at least Chris and Charlie are probing for answers. The real tragedy is when a presupposition masquerades as fact and then forever stands in the way of following a dream.

    Kind of like that experiment where people are kept in a room and they never escape because they assume the door is locked. Always ask the right questions – and definitely try the door!

  16. Sylvia says:

    Excellent post. Thank you.

  17. Here’s an example of an extremely dangerous presupposition: “Why am I always broke?” Combine that with the human mind’s inability to refuse to try and answer questions put to it, and you’re creating your own self-fulling prophecy asking questions like that.

    The better question is: “What steps can I take right now that will help raise my standard of living?”

  18. Sue says:

    I read these questions and the first thing I zeroed in was the either/or nature of them. My first question was, ‘Well why do these scenarios have to be phrased or understood as either/or situations at all?” Maybe other options are “both”, “neither”, or “not applicable”. You are also right on the mark that both questions do indeed make a lot of presuppositions. If these were items on a survey, I’d be really worried about the quality of the data and using that data to make important planning decisions!

    It’s been my observation that there seems to be an increasing tendency to take short cuts and/or oversimplify situations by resorting to dichotomous thinking–you’re either with us or against us, right or wrong, you can choose this or that,etc. Unfortunately, dichotomous thinking and making a lot of presumptions about the facts all too often short-circuits the likelihood of engaging in some much needed critical and valuable dialogue (whether with ourselves or with others)about the subtleties and consequences of how we frame the questions and the choices we subsequently make at individual, organizational and even national levels.

  19. Ann Vertel says:

    We tend to answer the exact question we’re asked, even those we ask ourselves. There’s a world of difference in asking, “How will I get the job done today?” and “How will I get the job done today and have fun in the process?”

    “How” questions can be a trap (ie. “How will I ever…”) unless they’re framed as, “How can I best…”

    Sometimes the most effective question can be, “What is the best question I can ask myself right now?”

    Great post and great subject, Jonathan! Keep ’em coming!

  20. Dark Angel says:

    Wonderful post

  21. Melani Ward says:

    These questions are exactly why I kick booty on essay tests and always wanted to write essays for multiple choice tests. When I saw these questions posted on Twitter I cringed at the thought of picking either or.

    Then I immediately thought of those career and personality tests that ask me if I would rather wield a sledgehammer or milk a cow. Um neither so give me an “other” option.

    Questions, good questions, at the right time to the right person can create real breakthroughs and paradigm shifts.

    Like the way you broke it down.

    Great post.