The same techniques that help us reach consensus with others can also steer us to satisfying individual decisions, the kinds of decisions that fit us like our favorite shoes and satisfy our needs.

To persuade another person to agreement, or reach consensus with her, we begin by asking the question, “Why?” Bridges to Consensus describes in detail how to prepare for a consensus seeking conversation by asking yourself why you want what you think it is that you want and also asking yourself why the other person might want what they seem to want. Then, we learn how to ask the other person about the broader interests behind her positions and tell her about our broader interests.

“Why?” is the fist of what I call “the three magic questions.” The magic resides in the way the answers to this question can bridge seemingly irreconcilable differences. For example, suppose Bob wants to sell his van for $17,000, and Carol wants to buy the van but can only pay $12,000. If the reason why Bob is asking $17,000 is because he needs that much to buy a piano, and Carol happens to have a piano she no longer wants, they might make a better deal with an even trade, rather than trying to compromise on a dollar amount.

How can this magic question help with our own personal decisions? In “How to Ditch a Dream,”[1] Augusten Burroughs writes about his dream of becoming a great actor. He held onto this dream until he saw a video recording of his own performance in an acting class and concluded that, “I sucked worse than anything has ever sucked in the history of suckage.”

But Burroughs didn’t have to abandon his dream. He only had to broaden his definition of that dream to find a way of fulfilling it that matched with his talents. He stopped and asked himself why he had wanted to be an actor. For Burroughs, who had trouble reaching out and connecting with people, acting had seemed like a comfortable way to do that.

But acting was not the only way to reach out and connect with people. He is now a successful writer, author of the best-selling book Running with Scissors, as well as Dry and This Is How.

So if you’re trying to do something that you really want to do, but it’s not working, stop and ask yourself why you want to do that thing. You may discover that what you were trying to do is simply one means to an end, an end that can be reached in other ways.

Have you tried to stick to a diet, but without success? Ask yourself why you tried that diet to begin with. You’d like to show up for the class reunion in your cheerleader uniform. Could a good tailor or dressmaker duplicate that uniform in your grown-up size?

Maybe you’ve been trying to become a good microwave cook. But you don’t really like the meals you turn out. Why did you try microwave cooking? You wanted to save money by not eating out so often, but since you often work late, you didn’t want to spend much time cooking. Maybe you would do better with a slow cooker. You could put everything into it in the preceding evening, stick it in the fridge, then before you leave for work in the morning, just take it out and plug it in.

Or if your current career isn’t working out, do like Burroughs did. Ask yourself why you were attracted to that career to begin with then look for another line of work that involves some of those same characteristics without the downsides.

As a bonus, the more skilled you become at asking yourself why in your personal decisions, the better you will employ this magic question when dealing with others.

[1] Psychology Today, June 2012, p. 28