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Change the Wording

Another technique to find more answers is to change the wording in your questions. Here’s an example of how such a strategy can work. Several centuries ago, a curious but deadly plague appeared in a small village in Lithuania. What was curious about this disease was its grip on its victim; as soon as a person contracted it, he would go into a very deep almost deathlike coma. Most individuals would die within twenty-four hours, but occasionally a hardy soul would make it back to the full bloom of health. The problem was that since early eighteenth century medical technology was not very advanced, the unafflicted had quite a difficult time telling whether a victim was dead or alive. This didn’t matter too much, though, because most of the people were, in fact, dead.

Then one day it was discovered that someone had been buried alive. This alarmed the townspeople, so they called a town meeting to decide what should be done to prevent such a situation from happening again. After much discussion, most people agreed on the following solution. They decided to put food and water in every casket next to the body. They would even put an air hole up from the casket to the earth’s surface. These procedures would be expensive, but they would be more than worthwhile if they would save some people’s lives.

Another group came up with a second, less expensive, right answer. They proposed implanting a twelve inch long stake in every coffin lid directly over where the victim’s heart would be. Then whatever doubts there were about whether the person was dead or alive would be eliminated as soon as the coffin lid was closed.

What differentiated the two solutions were the questions used to find them. Whereas the first group asked, “What should we do in the event we bury somebody alive?”, the second group wondered, “How can we make sure everyone we bury is dead?”

A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech, Ph.D., Warner Books, 1983, pp. 25-26