Coach’s Challenge for 1/29/12 “Good Questions”

Good day, team.

This past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of asking good questions. I realized that learning how to ask good questions was not a part of my education. All through school, we were encouraged to come up with the right answers — but not to become experts at the process of inquiry. This sets us up in our lives to always feel compelled to have the answer — and always the right answer.

It wasn’t until I was trained to be a coach that I learned how to ask good questions. We were encouraged not to answer any questions but rather to continue to inquire even if we thought we had the answers for our clients. Through the questions, we can prompt our clients to discover more about themselves, investigate more thoroughly the circumstances they find themselves in and understand how people are influencing their lives. In fact, so much about coaching revolves around the process of inquiry that you could say the best coaches ask the most insightful and relevant questions.

Having been an executive recruiter for many years, I was accustomed to a traditional form of interviewing that asked candidates questions about their work history and experience. I received lots of information about what they had done and how they did it. What I didn’t get enough of was a good understanding of who the person was. Back then, we didn’t ask a lot of ‘who’ questions like, what did he or she value most and want to see reflected in the values of an organization? What was the person most proud of in his or her life — not just in terms of work — and what would he or she never be willing to give up? Where did he or she tend to self-sabotage? How well did the candidate know themselves? How would a close friend or associate describe the character of the candidate?

Here’s a great example of a “who” question and answer. A good friend of mine named Ben was interviewing for a position to do something he hadn’t done before. He had some of the skills from a previous profession, but he would require much technical training if he got this new job. It would require a good-sized investment on the part of the organization if he were hired. He knew it would be a stretch for them to select him over other candidates who had just the right background for the job.

Toward the end of the interview, the hiring manager asked Ben, “What are you most proud of accomplishing in your life?” After a brief hesitation, Ben replied, “Staying married for the past 25 years.” The hiring manager chuckled, “I know exactly what you mean,” he said. “It’s a real challenge and commitment to stick with it through thick and thin.” It was at that point that the real connection was made between Ben and the hiring manager. By answering the question truthfully and sincerely, Ben revealed much more about who he was and what was important to him. He got the job and continued to have an open and genuine relationship with his new boss.

Asking good questions of others is one part of this challenge; the other is to be willing to ask yourself more questions. I think our fear of self-discovery comes from living in a world where outward appearances are so important. The emphasis is on how you look and act for other people, and you’re not encouraged to look inward to discover more about who’s in there. It’s as though the character you play on stage is more important than who’s in the dressing room before you put on your costume.

Self-inquiry is important, and it’s often the only way I can get to what’s at the heart of a matter for myself. When I’m worried about something or have something I need to work through, I often ask myself “why” to get to the deeper matter at hand. Here’s an example of some recent self dialogue:

— I’m afraid to have that difficult conversation with that person.

— Why?

— Because it will make me feel nervous and anxious.

— Why?

— Because when I think about the reaction that person will have, it makes me cringe and feel extremely uncomfortable.

— Why?

— Because I don’t want her to think I’m judging her, and I don’t want her to think badly of me.

— Why?

— Because I worry about what she will think of me.

__Why?

— Because I’m not very confident about my relationship with her.

— Why?

— Because I don’t trust she’ll see that I have the best of intentions toward her.

— Why?

— Because she doesn’t trust me.

— Why?

— Because she has trouble trusting people.

And so on.

I first heard about the “why” exercise when I read that Sony Corp. used this as a practice to help employees get to the real reasons behind why they should or shouldn’t do something or explore ideas and strategies on a deeper level. Whenever someone in the company made an emphatic statement about what should be done, others were instructed to ask “why” five times so they could get to the root of the idea. I’ve used it a number of times in my own self-inquiry and with others. It always gets me closer to the truth.

This week, try asking good questions. Perhaps you already know the answer to something, but go ahead and purposefully ask your co-worker the question to hear another point of view. Maybe you decide to check in more often in your conversations with others to make sure they heard you or understand you. A simple inquiry like, “Does this make sense to you?” after you’ve made a statement can start a much more enlightening conversation about the subject. Another idea is to turn a statement into a question or reframe an opinion so it opens the door for someone else to comment. If you are uncertain about your thinking or feelings, don’t be afraid to ask yourself “why” a few times to get to what’s really going on. Or maybe just experiment with the “why” exercise for fun with some of your team members.

Asking good questions is an art. And like art, it requires practice to get better at it. As Peter Drucker, the famous business consultant said, “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.”

Have a good week!

Kathleen

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