Beautiful Questions Versus Exhausting Questions

What kinds of questions are driving your life?  Are they beautiful questions, or exhausting questions?

Libby Wagner
Libby Wagner

The poet and consultant Libby Wagner, who specializes in leadership language says, “A beautiful question by nature is expansive rather than restrictive.” Wagnerwho draws upon the work of the late Irish poet, John O’Donahue and English poet David Whyte, describes the differences:  “When you hear a beautiful question, it strikes a chord with you. It resonates. It can be both exciting and little bit terrifying.

It’s big.  An exhausting question is one that’s the same question over and over again. Every time it comes up, you think, oh no, not this again. It’s restrictive. It keeps us in the same old conversations, week after week, year after year.”

Wagner ( provides an example, “The question, How are we going to increase sales? can turn into a really exhausting question. Or, How can

we get the team to produce more? A beautiful question is, What would create an entirely different way of meeting the needs of our customers?”

Beautiful questions give you energy. Exhausting questions deflate your energy. Think about some of your own challenging situations. Do you find yourself stuck, circling back to the same problems over and over again?

If so, you’re not alone. When organizations find themselves revisiting the same issues over and over again, leaders often assume it’s because their people don’t want to solve the problem, or perhaps the problem is just inherent in the nature of their business. For example, every year retail outlets ask, “How can we get our people to work more during the holidays?  It’s an exhausting question if there ever was one. The answers always circle back to overwork, frustration and low morale. This year many retailers decided to ask a different question. They asked, “How can we create a meaningful holiday for our customers and our employees?” The result is stores like Costco, Nordstrom, REI and Crate and Barrel, are going to remain closed on black Friday, and they’re getting great publicity for it. They’ve forged a better relationship with their customers and their employees. This demonstrates how reframing an issue, gives you a different lens.

When you ask more beautiful questions, you get more beautiful answers. The same principle applies to personal situations. For example, think about the differences in these two questions:

How do I organize all my junk?


How can I feel more peaceful in my space?

Wagner says, “A beautiful question is rooted ultimately in language.”

Instead of beating your head up against a wall time and time again, look at the language you’re using. A friend of mine was struggling with her son, who was extremely smart, but not motivated in school. She kept asking him, herself, and his teachers, “How can I get him to do his work?”  Changing two words made all the difference in the world. Instead of asking, “How can I get him to do his work?” she asked “How can I help him enjoy his work?” A change in language changed her entire perspective. When she asked her son, the beautiful question, he let out a sigh and finally opened up about his own frustrations. The result was a shift from critique to supportive, and ultimately success when they figured out a plan.

Look at your biggest challenges, and ask yourself, is there a beautiful question buried here?