To get clear, get curious first.


I’ve often described the last 10 years of my life as “the decade of personal development for Nancy Murphy.” Some of that personal growth resulted from intentional action – a Sufi retreat in the Sahara Desert, workshops on mindfulness, obsessive podcast listening. Other personal growth this decade resulted from experiences I wouldn’t have chosen, but that nonetheless provided important lessons: family health challenges, divorce, career missteps.

One of the best lessons I learned from these experiences is that when I’m struggling, I should get curious. When facing uncertainty, I want answers. Forcing the answer is not very effective, in my opinion. Instead, I’ve learned to start by asking better questions. Asking questions helps break my habit of assuming I already have certain information or know the “right” answer. I find this method allows space for clarity to emerge more organically – over time rather than on command.

As I approach my 50th birthday next year I’ve found myself feeling anxious, especially about being a single woman with no children in the second half of life. So, I’m using my new practice of curiosity to find clarity. Why is this birthday causing more anxiety than 40 or any other birthday? What do I expect to happen once I hit that milestone? Are those expectations positive or negative in my mind? Why am I judging them that way? Do I have a choice in how I live after 50? If so, what would I choose?

And then I remembered . . . I know some amazing, wise and generous women who already have crossed this milestone. I don’t have to figure this out alone! What if I ask them the questions I’m pondering, the ones that reflect my anxiety, and asked for their wisdom? The group agreed to respond to one question a month for 11 months leading up to my birthday next June. The wisdom they’ve shared already has exceeded my wildest dreams – and there are several months of wisdom still to come.

Getting curious also works well for challenges at work. When I encounter resistance to an idea or a change I’ve suggested to an individual or organization, rather than get defensive, I get curious. What’s underlying my client’s or colleague’s resistance? How might I shift my perspective rather than focusing solely on shifting theirs? If I look at the idea, issue, opportunity through a different lens, could I see the same challenges or concerns? What might make this idea more appealing or less concerning to others?

Depending on the issue you face, you may tailor your questions accordingly. Here are some of my favorites:

  • What do I love about that activity? What do I find challenging? Why is that?
  • Who do I enjoy spending time with? Why? What about them do I find so enjoyable?
  • Why does that upset me?
  • What assumptions am I making about this choice? Might there be other options than the ones on the table now? What would make one option or the other feel more acceptable to me?
  • What am I afraid of? What’s the worst that could happen? How likely is that? What would I do if it did happen?
  • What fundamental beliefs do I hold? What are my core values? How can I apply them to this choice? Is this choice making me uncomfortable because it’s calling me to something bigger or difficult, or because it’s not aligned with what’s most important to me/my core values?
  • If I make choice A versus choice B, how would I feel 10 days from now or 10 months down the road? What about in 10 years? What is this telling me about that choice?

Another technique for getting to the underlying cause of an issue is the 5 Whys.

If you keep a journal with your questions and reflections, look for patterns over time. See if you can connect the dots in hindsight, and then pull that insight thread just a little bit forward.

Next time you feel confused, overwhelmed, anxious or uncertain, try getting curious and see where it leads.

Have examples of good questions to ask yourself? Share them in the comments so that we all can benefit.

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