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Asking Better Questions

Author: Lindsay Tighe

The Key to Releasing Capability

In health and aged care people talk a lot about person centred care and can espouse the theory readily, however, I have found that in reality there are some key challenges that inhibit achieving the benefits that should be evident from its practice. Philosophically, the premise for person-centred care is to put the person at the centre of their care, which in essence means that you are handing the decision making and control over to them. At the heart of this is the assumption of capability, which in reality I find is not acknowledged or respected anywhere near the extent to which it should be, if person-centred care is to work.

The premise for my work is to acknowledge that everyone is far more capable than they realise and that the way we communicate with each other can build or inhibit people’s capability. Communication generally is done too much from what I call the ‘telling’ space and it becomes apparent that this approach, whilst done under the guise of being helpful, is one of the biggest inhibitors of enabling and building capability and capacity. Sadly, this ‘telling’ is often done unconsciously and habitually, probably due to this style of communication being role modelled predominantly in our lives, with no awareness of the adverse consequences. My life’s work is to enable people to see that their habitual style of communication needs to be balanced with the skill of asking Better Questions and in the process of doing this they will acknowledge and build capability and create people that are more empowered, motivated and less dependent.

The starting point when looking at any change in behaviour has to be our mindset and the assumptions that sit behind and create that mindset, and in my training this is exactly what I enable people to become more conscious of. I invite people to explore what assumptions they are making about their roles and what assumptions they are making about the people that they are interacting with. This without doubt is an enlightening thing to do as invariably we find that the role definitions we have created as well as the assumptions we have made about what others want from us lead a path directly to being ‘fixers, advisers and tellers’. This is despite what we know about person centred care.

In the process of becoming conscious of how people define their roles, I also invite people to start to become conscious of how detrimental the ‘telling’ approach can be and in particular highlights how, for the person it being told, it creates:

  • Dependence on the teller or fixer
  • Less creativity and responsibility
  • Passivity or rebellion or a bit of both!
  • A loss of confidence and capability
  • Feelings of being disrespected, not understood, frustration or anger
  • A lack of engagement or motivation

Professionals often get frustrated at the lack of ownership people take with regard to their health or lifestyle decisions but what they don’t realise is that, as a society, we have created people that have gotten used to being told what to do all the time. Their passivity then creates the professionals to believe that people need to be told what to do, and so the vicious, unconscious, cycle continues.

It is exciting to facilitate people to come to the realisation themselves that they do too much ‘telling’ in their communication and to be able to demonstrate to them how, by asking Better Questions they can enable and achieve better outcomes. I always say that when you are conscious, you can choose to change, and it is indeed an enlightening experience to realise that some simple changes can make such a profound difference. By inviting practitioners to redefine their roles to being enablers through actively seeking out capability and to acknowledge that capability is there, we just need to treat people that way to find it, we find ourselves breaking the cycle and truly being able to practice person centred care.

Clearly asking Better Questions is a real skill that takes time, energy and practice to learn and is something that I believe is something that we can get better at for the rest of our lives. That said I know from experience, that the starting point for change is awareness, so by helping people to become aware of the need to change and to ask Better Questions we are on the road to achieving better outcomes and creating a better world.
To conclude I wanted to share two of my favourite quotes:

"Tell a person they are brave and you help them become so." 

Thomas Carlyle

“We all have innate wisdom; we just need to be asked the right question.” 

Plato

These quotes remind us that if we interact with a person with a certain belief or mindset we enable the person to become whatever we are holding to be true about them. In other words if you treat a person like they are incapable and stupid, they will become incapable and stupid. If you treat them like they are capable and wise, they will be more capable and wise. 

As a society I believe we have a long way to go in becoming more conscious of our communication and recognising the detrimental impact that most of us have when we unconsciously, fix, tell or advise. Given that this is true of communication in all contexts of life, including Health, Aged Care, Disability, Parenting, Teaching, Caring and Workplaces the scope for better outcomes to be achieved in all of these contexts is limitless. Therefore, I am extremely excited about the possibility for our world if we all learn the skills to be a better questioner and start to release the capability that resides in everyone!

About the author: Lindsay Tighe resides in Australia and her passion is teaching the skill of asking Better Questions. She inherently believes that everyone is far more capable than they realise and knows that if we make some simple changes to the way we communicate with each other, we enable human potential and capability to be released. Find out more about her work here.


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Asking Better Questions © Lindsay Tighe 2016.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.