‘I listened to you guys answer all these questions on the spot, and I couldn’t do this. I mean, I would never just know what to say!’
That’s what the Argentinian brunette next to me offered over a glass of rosé last night after her first attendance at my local Toastmasters club. She had previously explained that she suffers from deep performance anxiety, and the prospect of presenting to an audience (a pitch for work) in the past had even provoked a fainting spell.
I thought back to the ‘on your feet’ part of the evening called ‘table topics’ and how in a few seconds, each of the volunteers stepped up and spontaneously talked about a randomly assigned topic for one or two minutes.
That evening, I had also stood up and walked to the middle of our group, a kindly bunch arranged in a semi-circle in a large repurposed co-working space. And the question I was given was:
“Have you ever made an alcoholic beverage or another drink from scratch?”
LOL. I was puzzled for a moment. But my mind did go searching for clues. I’ve never attempted to make an alcoholic drink, but as the question percolated, I was reminded of the artisanal Damassine that my dad loved when he visited his county of origin of Jura. Does grinding my own coffee and making it in a moka machine count? Suddenly the answer landed: I make nut milk every three days, indeed from scratch. And there are good reasons behind that choice (auto-immune disease and my love of coffee). Thinking on my feet, off I went with my story.
“It’s not that hard,” I confessed to my Argentinian friend. She looked puzzled.
“When you ask yourself an open-ended question or when you get asked an open-ended question of this kind, your mind will seek to find the answer.
It’s just how our minds work. You may go blank for a while, nerves and all, but eventually, you connect with the question, and your mind will offer you an answer.”
This reminds me that as a kid, or a teenager rather, I became rather engrossed in the stories of Socrates and Plato and the dialectic method: how Socrates would ask questions of his students to help them bring forth their own wisdom. Mental midwifery I think he metaphorically referred to it.
CAN YOU SEE WHERE I’M GOING WITH THIS?
Do you know why I fell in love with coaching?
If you’ve not heard me say it before, here goes:
Because coaching is fundamentally about formulating questions, inquiring.
Coaching is NOT giving advice. Any advice-giving is, in my line of work, either considered consulting (when paid) or mentoring (when not).
So coaching is asking questions and answering them, of course. Thoroughly. Honestly. Letting patience and often silence do their work.
The trouble is, asking questions is HARD.
Take a moment to think about this.
Can you think about examples in your own life, during interactions with friends, colleagues, or perhaps a boss or team members, when you’ve felt stuck and unsure how to move forward?
How often do you tell people your opinion, or tell them what to do, instead of asking questions?
And how effective is it?
In my experience, it’s not half as powerful or feels as half as collaborative, but tell me where I’m wrong.
Don’t worry; I’m not judging you. It’s hard for me too.
CAN YOU ASK A QUESTION?
I was enjoying Daniel Pink’s book ‘To Sell is Human’, as well as watching his MasterClass, when I came upon this passage about Bob.
Do you know Bob the Builder? I’m talking about the British stop-motion animated cartoon designed for pre-school kids.
When he gets stuck, instead of trying to power through by saying ‘we can do this’ or delivering a pep talk (still a better option than a negative one), Bob leans into what social science has recently come to prove:
“The most effective self-talk of all doesn’t merely shift emotions. It shifts linguistic categories. It moves from making statements to asking questions.”
“Like all of us, Bob talks to himself. But Bob’s self-talk is neither positive nor declarative. Instead, to move himself and his team, he asks a question: 'Can we fix it?’”
I’ve come across clients and people who want to be told what to do, and handed the fix, the solution. Integrating external advice isn’t as easy to process as we’d like it to be. It may not seem to fit the situation, or simply it may not feel right, after the conversation. Despite our best efforts and intentions, it may feel too hard, too simple, too hard to reach.
“I can’t, I don’t know how to. I need to do more research, is likely what you’ll hear your brain say instead.
Which is why advice or shared opinions rarely brings the same game-changing results that the interrogative method offers.
So I try as best I can to re-route my clients and lead them to a deeper form of inquiry. The inner work, or the magic of our problem-solving mind, is the key to finding the right solution for each of us.
Switching to questions does two things: it leads your brain to seek for answers and as Pink noted - pointing to the efficacy of the coaching model: “within those answers are strategies for actually carrying out the task.”
When things are not going anywhere, can you find the right question?
WHERE TO START?
Here’s the advice bit, the benefits of the method, summed up:
Ask questions and find significance in the answers.
Learn how to get unstuck.
And perhaps, even gain new strategies for how to reach your objectives.
Don’t trust me, trust the research (still quoting from Dan Pink's book):
“[…] people are more likely to act, and to perform well, when the motivations come from intrinsic choices rather than from extrinsic pressures.”
The most essential of all the questions that I ask - and which I use indiscriminately with individual or corporate clients - resonates with the ones that Seth Godin, brilliant mind that he is, started us off with when I did the the altMBA, all the way back in 2017 (a lifetime ago).
Would you like to try it out for yourself? or with your team?
If you feel so inclined, now is a good time to reach for a piece of paper and a pen.
Give yourself time. Don’t rush your answers. And feel free to let me know if the exercise gives you a clearer sense of direction.
Let’s start with:
Why do you do what you do?
And then answer each of the below four questions, so five answers in total. Give it a little time, don’t rush it please.
What are we/you here for?
What are we/you trying to accomplish?
Why does this matter?
Why is it important to you?
BE MORE BOB
Any personally-charged endeavour will feel like a struggle at some point or another. It’s true for everyone, and of course, for me too.
From one day to the next, I go from “this is great, I’m doing so well” to “this is a pile of crap and who do I think I am? I am an absolute fraud.”
There will always be moments of stuckness, friction and difficulties; why not try to make peace with that?
More often than not, I notice the difficult thoughts and I let them go by asking myself: can I do this?
And here’s the thing: my inner voice offers the answer.
You CAN do this.
And I go back to work.
Want a better life? Ask better questions.
And if you need help with those, email me to book a coaching session.
Until next week.