Power of Questions: Here are 7 from Stainier

by Nedra Chandler

Here’s the thing that says the most about the power of questions to transform crappy situations into better ones, maybe even MUCH better ones:

Questions elicit answers in their likeness“– Krista Tippet, in On Becoming Wise

Below are 7 great questions you can use with anybody you work or play with from Michael Bungay Stanier’s recent book on changing the way you lead forever.

This is my third decade of work in the conflict management and coaching field. I practice, practice and practice the art of asking better questions. Am I perfect at questions in the moment that help people magically discover where they are ready to go next and how they can show up? No way. But wow, does it ever pay back — more than any other single thing I practice.

This week’s post is short and sweet and immediately useable. It’s an excerpt from one of my National Park Service friends (thanks David) who shared these so-useful questions. Here the 7 questions from Stanier.

Hi Nedra,
I have enjoyed Michael Bungay Stanier’s 2016 book The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. It is a quick read. The focus is on working to develop a practice to shift behavior from advice giving to curiosity. I personally struggle with the “advice giving monster,” I think this is a very practical resource, here are the cliff notes:

Coaching is simple. Coaching can be done in 10 minutes or less. Coaching is a daily, informal act. You can build a coaching habit, “but only if you understand and use the proven mechanics of building and embedding new habits.”

Question 1: “What’s on your mind?”

A good opening line can make all the difference (just ask Charles Dickens, the Star Wars franchise, or any guy in a bar). The Kickstart Question starts fast and gets to the heart of the matter quickly. It cuts to what’s important while side stepping stale agendas and small talk.

Question 2: “And what else?”

The AWE Question keeps the flame of curiosity burning. “And what else?” may seem like three small words, but it’s actually the best coaching question in the world. That’s because someone’s first answer is never the only answer — and rarely the best answer. There are always more answers to be found and possibilities to be uncovered. Equally as important, it slows down the question asker’s “advice monster” — that part of every manager that wants to leap in, take over, and give advice/be an expert/solve the problem.

Question 3: “What’s the real challenge here for you?”

This is the Focus Question. It gets to the essence of the issue at hand. This question defuses the rush to action, which has many people in organizations busily and cleverly solving the wrong problems. This is the question to get you focused on solving the real problem, not just the first problem.

The first three questions combine to form a powerful script for any coaching conversation, performance-review formal, or water-cooler casual. Start fast and strong, provide the opportunity for the conversation to deepen, and then bring things into focus with the next questions.

Question 4: “What do you want?”

This is the Foundation Question. It’s trickier than you think to answer, and many disagreements or dysfunctional relationships will untangle with this simple but difficult exchange: “Here’s what I want. What do you want?” It’s a basis for an adult relationship with those you work with, and a powerful way to understand what’s at the heart of things.

Question 5: “How can I help?”

It might come as a surprise that sometimes managers’ desire to be helpful can actually have a disempowering effect on the person being helped. This question counteracts that in two ways. First, it forces the other person to make a clear request, by pressing them to get clear on what it is they want or need help with. Second, the question works as a self-management tool to keep you curious and keep you lazy — it prevents you from leaping in and beginning things you think people want you to do.

Question 6: “If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?”

If you’re someone who feels compelled to say “yes” to every request or challenge, then this question is for you. Many of us feel overwhelmed and overcommitted; we’ve lost our focus and spread ourselves too thin. That’s why you need to ask this Strategic Question. A “yes” without an attendant “no” is an empty promise.

Question 7: “What was most useful for you?”

Your closer is the Learning Question. It helps finish the conversation strong, rather than just fading away. Asking “What was most useful for you?” helps to reinforce learning and development. They identify the value in the conversation — something they’re likely to miss otherwise, and you get the bonus of useful feedback for your next conversation. You’re also framing every conversation with you as a useful one, something that will build and strengthen your reputation.

Try these out and I will so enjoy hearing how it goes for you, using these or your variation of these…please do send me a note to cadence@montana.com.

A bit about me: writer, Montanan, mediator and development coach for government leaders & teams. Find me and my long-time work mates at Triangle Associates and please sign up to receive my monthly posts in your inbox by typing in your email address here.

We help people listen and talk with each other with purpose and clarity. We find out what people are ready for and design custom collaborative or other opportunities. We serve as guides on the side to help participants find common ground and take action where they choose.

Encouragement to Bust Some Moves

(approximate reading time is 3 minutes)

People are often called to practice and teach what they most need to learn and that is true for me.

At root, my work as a professional coach and facilitator for government leaders and groups is about questioning and deep listening. It’s also about moves and motion. It’s about supporting people in bringing their whole selves to their work and life as frequently and whole-heartedly as possible.

Take rock and ice climbers. They make a lot of moves they can’t reliably predict the outcomes of ahead of time. They use their experience and all their senses. They use their gear if they have it when needed. They apply their brains, their skills and their whole bodies to make resourceful choices.

How about goats! I watched a whole lot of mountain goats during three seasons up on the continental divide in Glacier Park, and even when being stalked by a mountain lion at dusk, I saw goats make moves with skill and confidence at the very moment those moves were required. Where each move lands them, or us, isn’t ideal. At least it’s another move full of life, rather than flight, fright or frozen with fear or procrastination.

Because our government clients are working on some of the most complex public policy conflicts there are in this country, part of our business is about making and supporting experimental moves in the realm of interpersonal and intergovernmental relationships.

Last week I got to facilitate a group of wise leaders as they applied and practiced with some simple, powerful liberating structures to look for, and commit to, innovations together.

It was their annual meeting — a federal agency, state agency and now including a multi-county health district. Contaminants covering such a large geographic area can be managed but as at least one knowledgeable person noted with a touch of well-deserved drama, “there’s not enough money on the entire planet to remove it all.” So the complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty of this project means that monitoring should stretch long into next generations of future stewards.

When we are asked to help assess a conflict, design a process, or teach or coach, we end up supporting some courageous moves and some innovative commitments. Things that no one person generates or carries out alone.

It’s about making up stuff to skillfully respond to what seems to be needed. That’s right: making it up. Sometimes it’s an experiment.

Similar to democratic governance, it’s work that is grounded in principles even while it’s an audacious and sometimes-messy experiment at the same time.

There are many methods, technologies, collaborative governance, tools and techniques.

There are ‘core competencies,’ and there are ethical standards and a range of ‘codes of conduct’ in our fields. Underneath all that are moves.

National Park Service, Climbers on Denali
National Park Service, Climbers on Denali

Whatever happened the moment before, whatever is going to happen the moment after, they might pause. They may make a move. And then another, and another in a kind of focused dance with what they encounter.

I remember every teacher since first grade who encouraged me and taught me something I use in my life. There are many. Doug Silsbee is one of those teachers I remember. I use his insights to practice my craft.

Silsbee wrote, “We develop ourselves in order to support others. And as we support others, our developmental edges are inevitably revealed, furthering our own growth. Our development is intertwined with the development of those around us.”

We are continually offering individual development coaching as well as customized short courses for leaders and teams inside government. It’s not only about mastering moves, it’s about setting yourselves up as leaders and staff who are serving each other as colleagues, working as partners across agencies, and sometimes serving as coaches and facilitators inside government.

Please make a comment or send me a private message with your thoughts on the content you most want to explore in this next phase of course work creating communities of practice inside government.

A bit about me: I work with government clients as partners in navigating conflict and learning opportunities of all kinds. Find me at https://www.cadenceinc.us and more of my long-time work mates at http://www.triangleassociates.com.