By Maria Simpson
There’s an old saying that if you aren’t getting the answers you want, then ask different questions. As managers or coaches we sometimes want to provide answers and solve problems before we have asked enough of the right questions to get important information and identify real problems, so we provide answers to the wrong questions and solutions to the wrong problems. No the most efficient or effective process.
Questions generally fall into one of three categories -- curious, clarifying and challenging – and the first two will get the most important information. The curious question asks for new information and may not have any agenda in mind at all. I ask curious questions when I’m interviewing people. The clarifying question makes the current information clearer and assures that all parties understand information in the same way. Otherwise, a conflict will arise and someone finally has to say, “Oh, that’s what you meant. I didn’t get that at all” before it can be resolved. The challenging question is just what it describes—a challenge to what you have said or to you as a person. It challenges not only fact but integrity and honesty. It can feel as if the person is deliberately trying to trick you into saying something you don't mean and can cause immense stress.
Sometimes the difficulty for us is not in the question itself but in how to ask it, what words to use, especially if we are angry, frustrated, under pressure, or afraid of the answer.
When I have that difficulty I call my good friend and mediator par excellence L. Therese White who always finds the best way to say the most difficult things using her principle of “kind and direct.” (www.thereswhite.com) Therese believes that there is just no reason to be unkind when saying difficult things unless your goal is to hurt someone. In fact, she suggests, “maybe the most difficult things need the most kindness to say.”
To identify ways to be helpful as a coach or manager ask clarifying questions about the person’s feelings about the job, Therese suggests:
- The job description/procedures manual outlines what needs to be done. Are you willing to do that work?
- What can I do to help you prepare for the next meeting/presentation?
Therese tries to find common ground by asking curious questions that will generate new information, such as:
- Is there something about that person that you admire or value?
- Would you be willing to say that to that person?
- What is going on in the department that you both agree on?
- What do you need from the other person that you don’t think you are getting now?
That last question can be tricky, so the phrase is “don’t think you are getting” instead of “are not getting.” Sometimes the person is actually getting the help or support needed but is thinking so negatively that the help or support can’t be recognized. Helping the person understand that at least some of that support is actually present can change a perspective and expand the conversation.
Notice that challenging questions, questions that demand an answer or that make the person feel under attack and defensive, are avoided. For example, “Are you willing to do that work?” could just as easily have been stated, “Why aren’t you willing to do that work?” But that would be so much less effective. “Why aren’t you willing?” is an accusation made before the person has even expressed unwillingness. “Are you willing?” gives the person room to say no, and the coach room to ask what might be going on that creates that reluctance. The conversation is extended instead of cut short.
When people feel challenged they get defensive, they withdraw from the process and shut down, or they get argumentative and the dispute escalates. Using harsh language, language that implies something that isn’t true or hasn’t been discussed yet, is the quickest way to create an impasse instead of an open door.
Sometimes we have to ask the questions of ourselves. When I was complaining about a student’s very badly written paper to Ken Cloke, a wonderful mediator and mentor to both Therese and me, he asked me if there was anything good I could say about the second paper. “Well, I guess there are fewer technical errors than in the first one.” He said that was wonderful and asked me to build on what had improved, however small that was, to find a way to provide necessary feedback without condemning the student. Years later when a manager complained bitterly about a staff member, I asked him a version the same question. “That’s pretty harsh. Isn’t there anything good that can be said for this person?” He thought a minute and then said, “No.” I’d met the staff member and knew that couldn’t be true so I pressed him to think a bit harder. He finally said that she had been with the firm a long time and was loyal, a trait he valued, so there was something good to be said after all. It was a struggle for that manager to find a good quality, but finding it changed his perspective just enough so that he could be less harsh with the staff member.
Therese mentioned a conversation she had during a recent mediation where she explored the idea of kind and direct. “It was refreshing to see people get it and realize how everyone benefits when the choice is made to be ‘kind and direct’ instead of to be ‘kind ordirect.’” Surely we can make that choice much more often.
Have an absolutely wonderful, peaceful week. And be kind.
Maria Simpson, Ph.D.
© 2014 Maria Simpson