A really clever question can stop you in your tracks, in a good way, and even change the course of your life or career. What prompted a friend’s recent job change was a coach asking her the question: “What are you tolerating right now?” Until she considered that question, she hadn't realised how unhappy she was in her old role. The outcome - a new role that is exhilarating, and comparatively stress-free.
I had a similar experience years ago when asked about my then less-than-healthy relationship, “Where is this relationship heading?” Once the question was asked, there was nowhere to hide from the obvious answer. It ended soon after, making way, ultimately, for the relationship I’d always wanted.
Coaches are trained to ask clever questions to expedite attitude and behaviour changes and decisive action. Here are some examples;
- When someone is upset, caught up in a drama and feeling powerless, these two simple questions can lead to clarity: “What happened?” and “What did you make that mean?”
- The best questions to ask someone who is busy blaming others are “What can you be responsible for?” or “What’s your role in this?”
- For a procrastinator, a direct “What are your options?”, “What else?”, “What else?” (resist the temptation to let them off the hook after the first couple of responses - leave some silence in there to encourage them to dive deeper) then “Which option will you choose?”, “When will you get started” and “When will you have it done?”. If you really want to hold them to account, you can add “How will I know when it’s done?”
- If a person answers “I don't know”, simply ask “What if you did know the answer, what would you think/do?” You’ll be surprised at how this ‘unblocks’ their thinking.
You don't have to be a coach to ask clever questions. It just takes some thought and practice to get into the habit of asking questions rather than providing answers, advice or directions. And it pays off, whether you are a leader of a team or a parent. Apart from enabling and empowering people to think for themselves and use their initiative, questioning simply works better than telling. Neuroscience now shows that when you tell someone to do something, the brain’s automatic response is to arc up, like a two-year old, and resist. Because the job of the brain is to keep us safe, the brain deciphers ‘telling’ as a threat to our safety. This explains why so many of us hate being told what to do or how to do it. We’re not just being difficult, our brains are actually wired that way.
Now that I understand this, whenever my partner says ‘No’ to my clever questions, ideas and suggestions, I just wait for him to realise that there's no threat to his safety and he almost always agrees, in time.
Do be careful though. The best planned question may not lead to the response you want or expect. Overheard alighting from a train during school holidays, a young mother with a friend and six small children between them, asked “Who’s going to be the best behaved child at the Museum today”?
“Not me”, quipped the eldest, instantly mimicked by all the rest.