Ask Yourself a Better Question

I like to write about whatever is top of mind. Sometimes it’s sales, leadership, coaching, social issues, and at other times it’s parenting. Quite often I write when I’ve learned something I want to pass along and that’s what this post is about – asking yourself better questions.

Over the years I’ve read a lot about self-improvement. That leads me to books on how our brains work, how fitness helps our bodies and minds, ideas for success, and so on. I believe one of the most important things we can do in life is to reflect on our own thinking so we can improve our response to the situations life throws at us.

On the recommendation of two people I highly regard I picked up a copy of Change Your Questions Change Your Life by Marilee Adams, Ph.D. I learned something unexpected so I want to share it with you today.

One principle of influence that is most impacted by the use of good questions is the principle of consistency. This principle tells us people feel internal psychological pressure and external social pressure to be consistent in what they say and do. Bottom line; we usually feel better about ourselves when our words and deeds align.

Most people fail to engage this principle because they tell people what to do rather than asking. When you tell someone what to do you’re not gaining a commitment. Consequently, when it comes to questions I often share this with audiences: Stop Telling, Start Asking.

When I started to read Change Your Questions Change Your Life I expected to build on the use of consistency. However, what stood out to me was not the questions I ask others but the questions I ask myself.

Let me illustrate. Let’s say you have an employee named Pat. He’s been with your company and part of your department for a year and a half. You brought him in with high hopes and initially were very pleased. But over the last four months his performance has dropped noticeably. Work quality has slipped and he’s missed some deadlines. Because of many factors you’ve not been able to spend as much time with him as you did early on so you’re not sure what’s going on with Pat. Recently he missed another deadline by two days which meant you had to work over the weekend to make sure everything was ready by Monday morning for presentation to your boss. Needless to say, you’re not happy about feeling rushed and working over the weekend.

What’s the first thought that goes through your mind? Consider these possibilities:

  1. What the hell is up with Pat?
  2. Did I make a mistake when I hired Pat?
  3. Pat has so much potential. I wonder what’s going on with him?
  4. I wonder if Pat’s performance drop is because I haven’t been able to spend as much time with him in recent months?

As is the case with so many of us it’s easy to quickly go negative because Pat’s declining performance hurts your team and is a negative reflection on you as his manager. If you go into the next conversation with Pat focused on questions like 1 and 2 how productive do you think that conversation will be? Will Pat feel like freely sharing if he senses negativity and/or a hostile tone?

Now consider questions 3 and 4. Do you think you’ll have a more productive conversation with these questions driving your thought process? I’m sure you can see Pat will be more open to sharing if he believes you still see potential in him and are concerned with his career.

The first two questions, or any negative and judgmental questions you may stew over, will send you down a rabbit trail looking for answers to confirm those questions. It almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because it’s easy to find mistakes if you look hard enough.

What the hell is up with Pat? This is an exasperating question that will probably leak anger and frustration. While those emotions might be legitimate would you rather turn around his performance or get rid of him and start all over again with a new employee?

Did I make a mistake when I hired Pat? Our memories are short and our attention spans are even shorter. It will be much easier to focus on Pat’s recent performance and build a case in your mind that it was a mistake to hire him as opposed to reviewing the body of his work. Again, I ask, would you rather to turn around his performance or get rid of him and start all over again with a new employee?

Pat has so much potential. I wonder what’s going on with him? This acknowledges Pat has performed well in the past and seeks to find out what might have caused the recent change in performance.

I wonder if Pat’s performance drop is because I haven’t been able to spend as much time with him in recent months? While his drop may not have to do with your one-on-one time this is a less threatening opening than laying all the blame on him.

I hope you see the difference. The questions you ask yourself about people and situations impact your emotions, thinking and ultimately your behavior. This week I encourage you to pay attention to the questions you ask yourself. When you do, see if you can understand how they’re driving your behavior. Is it the behavior you want? Is it the most productive behavior?

Seldom can you change other people but you can change yourself. It begins with how you view and think about people and situations. Will you give it a try? What do you have to lose? What might you lose by not trying?

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Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Chief Influence Officer at influencePEOPLE
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is a sales trainer, coach and consultant whose specialty is applying persuasion and influence in sales and customer service situations. He is one of 20 individuals in the world who currently hold the CMCT designation. Brian’s blog, Influence PEOPLE, is followed by people in 200 countries and made the Online Psychology Degree Guide Top 30 Psychology Blogs in 2012.
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