A few good questions, used well, can turbo-charge someone's growth.
My day job is executive coaching. Sports coaches help athletes perform better. Executive coaches help executives and high-potential leaders perform better. But we don’t use a football, or a tennis racket, or a baseball bat (unless our clients misbehave, of course). One of our biggest tools is questions.
When I ask you a question, what happens? That’s right! You stop to think of the answer. Your mind gets engaged, and things start to bubble.
You can use this. As we’ve regretfully acknowledged many times before, our lives would be perfect if only those Other People didn’t get in the way so much. Your teammates, or your pointy-haired boss, or your shmoopies, or your polyamorous family units…they always have emergencies that only you can solve. Wouldn’t it be great if you had a quick way to get them to come up with their own solutions? How can you get them to solve their own problems?
Michael Bungay-Stanier, author of the book The Coaching Habit, did an interview with me about his wonderfully simple set of questions that can help you coach someone through a stuck spot. Use his questions and they’ll think you are a genius. They’ll get unstuck. They’ll do their job. You’ll do yours. Everyone will be happy and unicorns will fly in your window and burp out some beautiful rainbows. What could be better?
Ask: What’s on Your Mind?
When someone comes to you with a problem or challenge, this is a great open-ended question. Ask it, and listen. They’ll start talking and be totally self-absorbed (because we’re all self-absorbed. Even me! In fact, I could tell you stories all about me and the times I was self-absorbed. But these days, I’ve gotten over that. I’m no longer self-absorbed. I know because I pay attention. And I listen, especially when other people tell me how non-self-absorbed I am).
Be other-absorbed. Just listen. Listen to understand where their problems are. There are only three possibilities: they’re challenged by the task, they’re challenged by the people and relationships needed to get the job done, or they’re getting in their own way.
Just figuring that out and reflecting it back to them can be powerful. Let’s ask Melvin “What’s on your mind?” and listen for the three responses.
“We have a new inventory system and I can’t figure it out. I’ve read all the manuals, tried the examples, and still can’t get it to work.” That’s a task problem. “So I keep avoiding it by playing Minecraft, instead.” That’s Melvin getting in his own way. “And besides, Bernice, my boss, keeps nagging me.” That sounds like a people problem.
Ask Them to Elaborate
Now move on to question #2. “And what else?” Since people love to hear themselves talk, when you ask this, they’ll be off like greased lightning. When they pause and think they’re done, ask again. Ask it three to five times and they’ll get clearer and clearer about the issue.
“And what else, Melvin?” “Well, it’s really the nagging that’s upsetting. Bernice isn’t just my boss, she’s my fiancé. It’s a delicate balance on a normal day, and when she acts like this, it makes things even harder to deal with.” Drawing Melvin out leads him to realize that it’s the relationship that’s driving things, not the new system.
Ask Them to Focus
Now that they’ve had a chance to expand their thinking and free associate, ask the question that gets them to draw it all together: “What’s the real challenge here for you?”
The phrasing matters. “For you” makes it about them personally, not the external task.