People ask us for help all of the time – maybe you’re a therapist helping a patient, or a manager dealing with a coworker, or a teacher aiding a student.
When put in these types of positions, your goal is to get to the root of what another person needs from you and to address that problem as clearly and effectively as possible.
To get to the root of what someone needs from you, you need to know how to ask the right questions. The right question can often cut through any distractions or muddiness and bring you to the core of a situation or problem.
In the new book The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, & Change the Way You Lead Forever, Michael Bungay Stanier shares his top seven questions for becoming a better leader and coach. He teaches you helpful techniques on how to accomplish more in your daily conversations by saying less.
The key to any good leadership (or any type of communication) isn’t to give elongated speeches filled with wondrous advice and insights, but to instead ask “mind-dissecting” questions that help you uncover exactly what it is someone needs from you and how you can provide that.
Throughout this article, I will share these 7 simple questions mentioned in the book and why they can be so effective no matter what type of leader you are. In fact, these aren’t just good questions for becoming a better coach, they are actually good questions to improve any type of conversation that is centered around fixing a problem.
The Kickstart Question: “What’s on your mind?”
The first question is simply, “What’s on your mind?”
This question can be powerful because often whatever is on our mind in any given moment is what is taking up the most mental energy in our lives. By bringing someone’s attention to what is happening in the present moment, you give them an opportunity to reflect on what is currently bogging them down.
We often can’t move to the next stage in our lives until we’ve addressed what is sitting right in front of us. By asking, “What’s on your mind?” you open the door to address whatever seems to be most important to them within that particular moment.
Once you address this question, you free up a person’s mental resources for other avenues of conversation. But until you do this, whatever is swarming in their mind will continue to linger and distract their mental energy. This is why it’s so important to start a conversation with this simple question.
The Awe Question: “And what else?”
The next question is to continue the conversation by asking, “And what else?”
Often the first thing that comes to our minds isn’t always the most important thing. Instead, it takes several reiterations of a question before you can get to the root cause of what’s really bothering a person.
This is a big idea behind the Five Whys Exercise, which states that we need to ask ourselves “Why?” approximately five times before we can discover the root cause of any issue in our lives.
By asking, “And what else?” we encourage a person to dig deeper into their minds and search for other possible topics that may need addressing. We rarely know what is the true problem right from the beginning. Instead, a bit of further introspection is often needed before we discover something that hits the core of what we want.
Keep in mind, you can ask “And what else?” more than once if you feel there is still more to explore on any given topic.
The Focus Question: “What’s the real challenge here for you?”
Once you’ve done some digging, a great question to ask is “What’s the real challenge for you here?”
The Kickstart and Awe questions mentioned above are important for encouraging reflection and introspection, but now it’s time to focus on what can be done.
By asking, “What’s the real challenge for you here?” we put the focus on the person and the problem they are currently experiencing. It forces them to now identify what they want to work on or improve.
We can spend infinite amount of time talking about problems and letting our minds wander, but the goal of the Focus question is to begin to narrow the scope of the conversation and get to the root of the problem that needs addressing.
This is a particularly important question to ask if a conversation appears to be going on forever with no end-goal in sight. It’s time to buckle up and find what needs to be focused on in the present moment!
The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, & Change the Way You Lead Forever is a very useful guide for any type of leader, coach, teacher, manager, or therapist. It teaches you how to accomplish more by saying less through the power of asking important “mind-dissecting” questions. It’s also great wisdom for just improving your conversations in general, such as when a friend or family member is asking for your guidance.
The Foundation Question: “What do you want?”
Now that we’ve identified the problem, it’s time to search for a solution.
The Foundation Question gets to the root of what the other person needs by directly asking them, “What do you want?”
Often people have a hard time asking for what they want. They may leave subtle hints or clues, but coming out boldly and saying “This is what I want” can often feel like you’re coming across as selfish or rude.
However, by asking the other person this question, you give them the opportunity to state their demands without feeling selfish or guilty.
Good communication comes when we know what everyone wants and then try our best to find a solution that satisfies those wants. Bad communication comes when we don’t know what someone wants or assume what they want without finding out directly.
This question help takes the pressure off of everyone by opening the doors to clearer communication.
The Lazy Question: “How can I help?”
Once we know what the person wants, the next logical question is “How can I help?”
It’s not always in your power to give people everything they want, but if they came to you for help then there must be something they believe you could do to bring them closer to their goals.
Maybe the person is having trouble with a coworker and they would like you to talk to them, or maybe the person is having trouble finishing a project on time so they would like you to help them or push the deadline back.
Michael Stanier warns us to watch out for the “Advice Monster.” Often when listening to others talk about their problems, we assume we know the best way to help them and we quickly jump to giving them advice.
By directly asking the person “How can I help?” we avoid this creeping Advice Monster and find out exactly what the other person expects from us before jumping to conclusions.
The Strategic Question: “If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?”
One of the most important questions mentioned in the book is The Strategic Question. This question asks, “If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?”
At its heart, this question is about the economic concept known as opportunity cost. For every decision we make, there comes costs. For example, by choosing to go to one college you also choose not to go to a bunch of other colleges.
We have many different options throughout our lives and it’s physically impossible to say “yes” to everything due to limited time, effort, and resources.
So to improve your decision-making process, it’s crucial that you understand what your alternatives are and what you’d be saying “no” to by saying “yes” to something else.
By focusing on your alternatives, you can get a clearer idea of whether something is the right choice for you. Can you live without X, Y, and Z? Okay, then this choice can work. But if your choice requires you to say “no” to something that you can’t imagine living without, then maybe you need to search for a new choice.
If I told you that you can have a job where you make a million dollars a year but you’ll only have one day of the year to spend with family or friends, is that something you could live with? Are you willing to say “yes” to the million dollar job if it means “no” to family and friends?
Ultimately, what you say “yes” to should be aligned with your other priorities and values.
The Learning Question: “What was the most useful for you?”
A great question to end the conversation off with is the Learning Question which asks, “What was the most useful for you?”
Instead of you telling the person what you most want them to remember from the interaction, this question allows the person to identify a major takeaway for themselves. This is very important for any leader, manager, or therapist as it allows the conversation to end off on a positive and productive note.
It also helps to ask this question to better your own leadership ability. Maybe you thought something else was a major takeaway from the conversation, but by allowing the individual to decide for themselves you can improve your own communication skills by paying attention to what they personally found most insightful and useful.
Studies in psychology show that people remember more when they re-create what they learn in their own words. For example, a student who asked to give a presentation to a class is more likely to remember the material than if they were to just study on their own.
By asking a person to tell you what they found most useful in the interaction, you reinforce what they’ve learned in a much more effective way than simply reminding them what they’ve learned. That’s what makes this question a great way to end any coaching session.
Altogether these 7 “mind-dissecting” questions are great to keep in your repertoire. They will allow you to engage in more rewarding conversation, while at the same time not needing to say too much.
By asking questions, you allow the other person to work through their problems and discover solutions in their own way. It’s not just giving a speech or lecturing someone, by giving them the power and opportunity to find answers on their own.
The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, & Change the Way You Lead Forever is a very useful guide for any type of leader, teacher, manager, or therapist. It’s also great wisdom for just improving your conversations when a friend or family member is asking for your guidance.
If you enjoyed this article, I highly recommend you check out the book.
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