by Michael Bungay Stanier
This book gives you seven questions and the tools to make them an everyday way to work less hard and have more impact.
The Kick-start Question: “What’s on Your Mind?”
An almost fail-safe way to start a chat that quickly turns into a real conversation is the question. “What’s on your mind?” It’s something of a Goldilocks question, walking a fine line so it is neither too open and broad nor too narrow and confining. Because it’s open, it invites people to get to the heart of the matter and share what’s most important to them. You’re not telling them or guiding them. You’re showing them the trust and granting them the autonomy to make the choice for themselves. And yet the question is focused, too. It’s not an invitation to tell you anything or everything. It’s encouragement to go right away to what’s exciting, what’s provoking anxiety, what’s all -consuming, what’s waking them up at 4 a.m., what’s got their hearts beating fast. It’s a question that says, Let’s talk about the thing that matters most.
The AWE Question: “And What Else?”
I know they seem innocuous. Three little words. But “And What Else?” — the AWE Question — has magical properties. With seemingly no effort, it creates more — more wisdom, more insights, more self-awareness, and more possibilities — out of thin air. There are three reasons it has the impact that it does: more options can lead to better decisions: you rein yourself in and you buy yourself time.
- Stay Curious, Stay Genuine – Just because you’ve now got a fabulous question to use, that doesn’t mean you can slip into a bored groove when asking it.
- Ask It One More Time – Let’s start with the understanding that as a general rule, people ask this question too few times rather than too many. And the way to master this habit is to try it out and experiment and see what works. As a guideline, I typically ask it at least three times, and rarely more than five.
- Recognize Success– At some stage of the conversation, someone’s going to say to you. “There is nothing else.“ When that happens, a perfectly reasonable reaction is a rapid heartbeat and slight panic. Reframe that reaction as success. “There is nothing else“ is a response you should be seeking. It means you’ve reached the end of this line of inquiry. Take a breath, take a bow and go on to another question.
- Move On When It’s Time– If you can feel the energy going out of the conversation, you know it’s time to move on from this angle. A strong “wrap it up“ variation of “And what else?” is “Is there anything else?” That version of “And what else?” invites closure, while still leaving the door open for whatever else needs to be said.
The Focus Question: “What’s the Real Challenge Here for You?”
This is the question that will help slow the rush to action, so you spend time solving the real problem, not just the first problem. It’s no accident that it’s phrased the way it is. Here’s how it builds to become such a useful question:
- What’s the challenge? Curiosity is taking you in the right direction, but phrased like this the question is too vague. It will most likely generate either an obvious answer or a somewhat abstract answer (or a combination of the two ), neither of which is typically helpful.
- What’s the real challenge here? Implied here is that there are a number of challenges to choose from, and you have to find the one that matters most. Phrased like this, the question will always slow people down and make them think more deeply.
- What’s the real challenge here for you? It’s too easy for people to pontificate about the high -level or abstract challenges in a situation. The “for you“ is what pins the question to the person you’re talking to. It keeps the question personal and makes the person you’re talking to wrestle with her struggle and what she needs to figure out.
Three Strategies to Make This Question Work for You
- Trust That You’re Being Useful – When you start shifting your behavior from giving advice and providing solutions to asking questions, you will feel anxious. “I’m just asking questions. They’re going to see right through this any minute now.”
- Remember That There Is a Place for Your Advice –When someone pops his head around the door and asks, “Do you know where the folder is?” tell him where the folder is. Don’t ask, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” That’s just annoying. (Although the upside might be that people stop interrupting you, so don’t dismiss this tactic out of hand.) One of your roles as a manager and a leader is to have answers. We’re just trying to slow down the rush to this role as your default behavior.
- Remember the Second Question – Every question gets better when you add. “And what else?” Asking. “What’s the real challenge here for you?” Good. Adding. “And what else? What else is a real challenge here for you?” Even better.
The Foundation Question: “What Do You Want?”
Taking responsibility for your own freedom is notoriously difficult to do. Peter Block defined an adult-to-adult relationship as one in which you are able to ask for what you want, knowing that the answer may be “No.” That’s why at the heart of this book is this simple but potent question. “What do you want?” I sometimes call it the Goldfish Question because it often elicits that response: slightly bugged eyes, and a mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out.
The Lazy Question: “How Can I Help?”
The power of “How can I help?” is twofold. First, you’re forcing your colleague to make a direct and clear request. That may be useful to him. He might not be entirely sure why he started this conversation with you. Sure, he knows he wants something, but until you asked the question, he didn’t know that he wasn’t exactly clear on what he wanted. Unless he was, in which case the question is useful for you, because now you can decide whether you want to honor the request. Second (and possibly even more valuably), it stops you from thinking that you know how best to help and leaping into action.
The Strategic Question: “If You’re Saying Yes to This, What Are You Saying No To?”
This question is more complex than it sounds, which accounts for its potential. To begin with, you’re asking people to be clear and committed to their Yes. Too often, we kinda sorta half-heartedly agree to something, or more likely, there’s a complete misunderstanding in the room as to what’s been agreed to. (Have you ever heard or uttered the phrase. “I never said I was going to do that!”? Me too. ) So to ask. “Let’s be clear: What exactly are you saying Yes to?” brings the commitment out of the shadows. If you then ask, “What could being fully committed to this idea look like?” it brings things into even sharper, bolder focus. But a Yes is nothing without the No that gives it boundaries and form.
The Other Five Strategic Questions
These questions are not linear. Answering one will influence the answer to the one that follows and likely to the one that preceded it. It is the process of working back and forth between them, creating alignment between your answers that is the strength of this process. It was Eisenhower who said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable“ and while that’s a little black and white, it’s also true that the result of these questions is that they force great planning. Here are the five questions:
- What is our winning aspiration?Framing the choice as “winning” rules out mediocrity as an option. If you want to win, you need to know what game you’re playing and with (and against) whom. What impact do you want to have in and on the world?
- Where will we play?“Boiling the ocean” is rarely successful. Choosing a sector, geography, product, channel and customer allows you to focus your resources.
- How will we win?What’s the defendable difference that will open up the gap between you and the others?
- What capabilities must be in place?Not just what do you need to do, but how will it become and stay a strength?
- What management systems are required?It’s easy enough to measure stuff. It’s much harder to figure out what you want to measure that actually matters.
The Learning Question: “What Was Most Useful for You?”
Academic Chris Argyris coined the term for this “double-loop learning” more than forty years ago. If the first loop is trying to fix a problem, the second loop is creating a learning moment about the issue at hand. It’s in the second loop where people pull back and find the insight. New connections get made. Aha moments happen. Your job as a manager and a leader is to help create the space for people to have those learning moments. And to do that, you need a question that drives this double -loop learning. That question is. “What was most useful for you?”
Question Master Class: Tips for Using the Seven Questions to Their Full Effect
Ask one question at a time. Just one question at a time.
Cut the Intro and Ask the Question
Stop offering up advice with a question mark attached.
That doesn’t count as asking a question. If you’ve got an idea, wait. Ask. “And what else?” and you’ll often find that the person comes up with that very idea that’s burning a hole in your brain. And if she doesn’t, then offer your idea — as an idea, not disguised as a fake question.
Stick to Questions Starting with “What ”
Yes, there’s a place for asking “Why?” in organizational life. And no, it’s not while you’re in a focused conversation with the people you’re managing. Here are two good reasons: You put them on the defensive. Get the tone even slightly wrong and suddenly your “Why…?” comes across as “What the hell were you thinking?” It’s only downhill from there. You’re trying to solve the problem. You ask why because you want more detail. You want more detail because you want to fix the problem. And suddenly you’re back in the vicious circles of overdependence and overwhelm. If you’re not trying to fix things, you don’t need the backstory.
Get Comfortable with Silence
When you ask someone one of the Seven Essential Questions, sometimes what follows is silence. Echoing, endless silence. And by “endless” I mean sometimes as long as three or four seconds. In those moments, as everything slows to Matrix-style “bullet time“ every part of you is desperate to fill the void. Put this existential angst aside. Silence is often a measure of success.
Actually Listen to the Answer
You ask one of the Seven Essential Questions. And then you move into Black -Belt Active Listening mode. Nodding your head like a well-sprung bobble head doll. Making small grunting noises of encouragement. Maintaining eye contact at all costs. Yet rattling around in your head is a riot of distraction. Perhaps you’re worrying about what question you should ask next. Perhaps you’re thinking about how to get this whole conversation wrapped up as fast as possible. Perhaps you’re wondering whether it’s your turn to cook tonight, and whether you have enough garlic in the cupboard or if perhaps you should pick some up on the way home. In any case, the wheel is spinning but the hamster is dead. One of the most compelling things you can do after asking a question is to genuinely listen to the answer.
Acknowledge the Answers You Get
Remember to acknowledge the person’s answers before you leap to the next “And what else?” You don’t need to say much. This isn’t about judging people; it’s about encouraging them and letting them know that you listened and heard what they said. Some of my favorite replies are: FANTASTIC. I LIKE IT. GOOD ONE. NICE. YES, THAT’S GOOD. MMM -HMMM I bet you’ve got some of your own, too. What would you add to this list?