Playing Two Thinking Roles Can Ignite Your Thinking

Thinking Tools

Here’s a surprisingly effective technique that can pry information loose from your brain and ignite your thinking when you’re stalled: The “Q&A Technique.” [1]

Here’s the technique:

Write down a question you are puzzling over. (“How” and “Why” questions are particularly suitable.) Blurt out an answer without censoring. Then blurt out an unself-conscious follow-up question. Then another answer. Keep writing out question and answer, without pausing or second-guessing, until you reach some closure.

Here’s an example:

Q: How am I going to get this report done soon?
A: That depends on what “soon” means.

Q: What constitutes “soon”?
A: Today?

Q: Is it realistic to get it done today?
A: No.

Q: What would be a realistic timeline?
A: Well, I think I can realistically expect to have it completely
edited and ready to go Thursday. Wednesday might be cutting it

Q: How are you going to get the report completely finished by
A: Draft today, get the sidebar blurbs drafted today and tomorrow,
Wednesday for editing and review. That leaves Thursday for any

You may feel this example to be a little subjective. Fortunately, the only person who needs to follow the Q&A is the person doing the thinking. But I hope you also see that the questioning process quickly uncovers vague issues (“what constitutes soon?”) and mistaken ideas (“today?”). It helps you zero in on what you really need to be thinking about.

The Q&A process can’t create information from thin air. It works when you start with a question you “should” be able to answer, but you feel stuck. That’s when having a conversation with yourself playing two separate roles–naive questioner and blunt answerer– helps you clarify the issues.

To make it work, play the roles to the hilt. As the answerer, take a frank, direct attitude, simply blurting out responses without
worrying how they might look. No censoring. As the questioner, ask simple curiosity questions, following up on a term or idea in the previous answer. Keep the questions friendly and open-ended. Don’t worry about asking obvious or “dumb” questions.

When you play the two roles this way, you eliminate the performance pressure that can freeze your thinking. Playing the role
of a naive, curious questioner, you give yourself permission to raise issues and to challenge yourself. Playing the role of blunt answerer, you give yourself emotional distance from the issues.

These are two mental sets–the curious and the blunt–that you need to be able to adopt at will and switch between during thinking. Playing the “roles” helps you make the switch to the appropriate mental set.

If you have trouble getting into the two mindsets, some people find it helpful to heighten the separation between the roles by physical means. You can use two colors of ink for questioner and answerer. Or you can set up two chairs, one for questioner and one for answerer, and then act out the two roles aloud–moving between the chairs as you change perspectives.

Is this a trick? Not really. When you are feeling stuck on a question that you “should” be able to figure out, you are almost certainly shutting down your subconscious databanks with censoring. What you need is some combination of frankness and curiosity to counter the blocks. It just so happens that ad-libbing two roles, the curious questioner and the blunt answerer, is an easy, familiar way to make that important mental adjustment.

[1] I learned this technique from Marcia Yudkin’s CD set: Become a More Productive Writer”



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