I recently read The Coaching Habit – a great little book about how we can get better at asking questions rather than simply offering up advice. The book makes a case for seven essential questions and it made me reconsider what my own preferred questions are.
Managers and leaders need to become better coaches
I fully buy into the philosophy that managers and leaders need to become better coaches in order to get the best results from their team. Many managers still fall into the trap of telling others what to do rather than asking simple questions. I experience this all the time. One example is when a project manager needs to give direction about work that has to get done. In most cases the PM will tell the team what to do and give them detailed instructions. Rarely does the project manager enter a conversation where they predominantly ask questions to validate assumptions, engage the team and understand their ideas or points of view. Such questions could be: How would you resolve this task? What do you believe a good outcome looks like? What questions do you have? How often should we check in with each other? What do you need from me?
As we’re constantly under time pressure, we believe that telling others what to do is the most effective approach. Giving others the answer boosts the ego and makes us feel that we’re contributing with our knowledge. If we’re simply asking questions, are we then doing any real work? Leadership, of course, is about inspiring and empowering people to find their own way. Not just giving instructions. When we ask great questions, not only do we open up the conversation, we make people feel that their contributions and ideas matter. That’s the starting point for creating engagement and high performance.
Another example from my coaching, which illustrates how poor we are at asking questions, is when a person describes a situation they are trying to figure out. This could be how to communicate better with a stakeholder, motivate a team member or delegate to them. But when I ask my coachee if they have had a conversation with the other person – and asked them directly – the answer is often that they haven’t. What is it that makes it so hard for us to ask: how would you like me to communicate with you? What would you like more of/less of in your job? How much direction do you need from me?
What does a good question look like?
If you ask your team: do you agree with what I just said? Or, why did you not complete the assignment I gave you? These questions wouldn't quality as good ones because they’re closed yes/no questions and because they come across as accusational. Good questions are open and often begin with what or how. They open up a conversation, make the other person reflect and reframe a situation.
In The Coaching Habit, the author writes about seven questions that he feels are essential:
What’s on your mind?
And what else?
What’s the real challenge for you here?
What do you want?
How can I help?
If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?
What was most useful for you?
Out of those questions, my preferred one is the third: What’s the real challenge for you here? This question cuts to the bone and helps make sure that we’re talking about the real problem, not just the one presented at the surface. People often get into lengthy explanations, and you’re not sure where to start. When you ask the focus question they will pause and think, and almost always be able to answer what the real challenge is for them.
One of my own favourites questions is: How are you feeling? In the right situation, this question has the potential to transform a conversation and a relationship. In a professional context we mostly talk about what we think, not how we feel. But as we’re all driven by emotions, being able to tap into how someone is feeling will help you build trust and have more meaningful conversations.
What is your favourite question?
At The Project Leadership Institute we are taking the project management community to the next level. Our transformational leadership programmes impact the heart, the soul and the mind. We support the idea that project leaders must be able to inspire and empower people on their project to find their own way. That’s why all of our programmes offer the opportunity to the delegates to practice their team leadership and coaching skills.