The questions we ask

Published 10:28 am Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I’m sure you’ve noticed them on a walk through a city park or through a college campus ­– worn dirt paths cutting through fields where pedestrians have trudged until the grass has stopped growing. Without regard to the available sidewalk, these pedestrians take the liberty to shortcut through the field. The result? A strip of brown across a well-manicured lawn.

The average passerby would look at this path and scoff at the blemish. City or campus officials might ask: “How much do we need to spend to cover that eyesore?” or “How can we keep people from walking through this field?”

However, landscape architects would look at those paths in a completely different way. They call them desire lines. What an average passerby may see as an eyesore, a landscape architect sees as an opportunity. Her question would be framed in this way: “What do we need to do to make this a sidewalk?”

You see, a landscape architect sees a desire line as an opportunity to create the most efficient path. Ultimately, the questions we ask determine the answers that we get. A desire line is either a blemish or an opportunity. And simply reframing a question – and ultimately our mindset – can change the entire outcome.

We as a nation could take a page from the landscape architect’s sketchbook. Many of the major challenges we face today remain stagnant because we have failed to change our approach. However, the simple truth is if we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get the same results we’ve always gotten. We can make significant ground on the challenges we face today if we change the questions that we ask. By shifting focus to the solution rather than the problem, we can produce a change in mindset and ultimately affect the outcome.

This notion of asking empowering questions is not a new concept. In fact, it is a part of our DNA as a nation. Our Founding Fathers asked forward-thinking questions. They were innovative in their approach. Imagine if our Founding Fathers had asked, “How can we make America like other nations?” instead of “How can we make America one of a kind?” The tapestry of our democracy would look drastically different.

Centuries later, our nation’s challenges are different, but the principle is the same. Especially in times of great challenges, we need to step back and evaluate the questions we are currently asking. Are they questions that focus on the problem, and ultimately keep us on the same course? Or are they questions of empowerment that help move us forward? No matter how good our intentions may be, it is our questions that ultimately determine the path we are on.

As we address defense spending, we can ask two related, but very different questions: “How much can we cut from defense?” or “What do we need to protect and defend our nation?” The former looks at the problem today, but fails to consider future consequences. The latter empowers us to protect our nation, and to find ways to invest in our national security and spend our money more wisely. Two questions chart very different futures.

As we consider various societal needs, we can ask two questions: “How much of a role should the government take in meeting those needs?” or “How can we empower American citizens to be the best they can be?” One leads to a culture accepting of an ever-growing, over-reaching government. The other leads to a culture of innovation and ingenuity.

As we consider our mounting national debt, we can ask two questions: “How can we come to a temporary agreement?” or “How can we ensure we pay our bills today and in the future?” One kicks the can down the road. The other puts us on a path towards fiscal responsibility.

As we look at division in Washington, government leaders can ask two questions: “Why won’t you agree with me?” or “How can we find common ground?” One leads to a closed door in negotiations. The other leads to meaningful discourse.

As we look at the overall landscape of our nation, we can ask two questions: “Who are we as a nation now?” or “Who do we as a nation want to become?” The latter brings a long-term focus.

The questions we ask lead to very different answers; answers that chart very different courses for our nation. We need to decide if we want to ask questions that limit us, or questions that allow us to be forward thinking. Then, we must be committed to finding the answers.

So now a question for you: “What questions would you rather ask and what questions do you want our government leaders asking?” The answer lays purpose for the future of America.

U.S. Rep. RANDY FORBES, R-Va., represents Western Tidewater in the U.S. House of Representatives. His e-mail address is