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The Difference one Question can make

As part of my own training to become a professional coach, I twas continuously amazed by the impact certain words have on other people. One of the core skills of a coach is to communicate effectively. Part of that is the realisation that our choice of words matters. And it matters A LOT.

I noticed one thing over the years with certain types of Leaders. When asked whether they are comfortable giving feedback they say yes. However, what they in fact mean is that they are comfortable speaking on whatever is on their mind.

The sad side effect of this is that we are often unaware of the actual impact of our words on others.

Two examples here:

1. You notice a team member ask a certain question in a meeting. You wonder why they ask it. You ask: “Why did you ask that question?”. While your intent is to uncover a reason, very likely, the other person is predominantly busy analysing the judgment that swings with it. What they hear is “you should not have asked that. Please justify why you did.” A better way how I coach could have asked? “I was surprised about that question you asked. I am curious, what kind of thinking lead you to ask it?” The switch from ‘Why’ to ‘What’ automatically removes a great deal of judgment from the question.

2. You notice a peer cutting off another person in meetings frequently. You tell them afterwards: “I observed that you cut him off three times and made him very angry because of that. What was going on?” Very likely, the other person will hear the following: “You made him angry. Your actions where intended to cause that effect. Please repent for this negative intent of yours.” Next thing you notice is that that the person again will justify themselves. A better way how a coach could respond and address this? “I have observed that you interrupted him three times during the meeting today. I have noticed that he became angrier and more emotional and looked quite stern at ou. Did you notice that too?” This observation tries to reduce judgment and focuses on neutral sharing of action (interruption) and impact (emotional response), both of which are facts.

These examples show that when we start taking Coaching seriously, we realise we can’t be that lazy anymore with our choice of words. The more we pay attention, the more realise that our word choices (together with tone and body language of course) have almost an automatic impact.

The good news? It’s a lever that we can pull and work with.

One example that I describe in the podcast this week is a typical question that is often mindlessly asked at the end of a meeting.

“Do you have any questions?”

Sounds like a fair thing to ask, no? Well, if we look at the question more closely, we see that it is a closed question. This is not bad on its own, but it makes it more likely that we get a yes/no response. If our intent is to do a final, quick check at the end of the meeting, then this is perfectly appropriate.

However, if we want to really uncover whether we missed something important and whether people in the room need more before they go their way, a different phrasing is likely to work much better:

“What questions do you have?”

The difference seems subtle at first sight, but creates a different impact. When we ask this way, we automatically presume there are questions. We don’t rely on someone to jump up and declare first ‘Yes, I do’, which can be quite daunting in a meeting. When we ask ‘Do you have questions?’ people focus on whether they should raise their hand. When you ask ‘What questions do you have?’, people are more likely to ponder about how to formulate the question.’

I have anecdotally observed the impact in my own coaching workshops. When I explain activities and then ask ‘Do you have questions?’, usually there are few responses…some muttered ‘No..’. When I ask what questions they have for me, it is much more likely that people come forward.

Pro Tip: A great coach contextualises their questions further, to invite responses. So, to make it even easier for people to share their question for you, you can ask them: ‘So, we talked a lot about the new key dates. What further question do you have regarding the updated timeline for this project plan?’ By doing this, you provide a scaffolding and structure and you appear much more inviting for people to share what is truly on their mind.

So, next time when you end a meeting and you feel content because no one asked questions upon your prompt, think twice. Are there really none, or did you raise the bar just a little too high for them to first admit that they do?

All the best and enjoy your Coaching!


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