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May 11, 2008

What Would Happen if you Asked a "Powerful Question"?

Well, I think I've found my passion! I've ventured into the world of professional coach training, starting with Co-Active Coaching, taught by the Coaches Training Institute (CTI).

A key Co-Active practice,called "Powerful Questions," (though far from new), blew me away - here is a way to create new possibilities in my retrospectives! The trick lies in NOT asking the weak question, particularly the "yes/no" question which pre-loads my assumptions into the conversation. The "why" question is no better: it can feel like an attack, prompting a "justifying" answer, rather than encouraging reflection and honesty, which would be more constructive.

Now that I'm watching the questions I ask, this Skype exchange pleasantly surprised me this week. I intentionally tried a powerful question, which my colleague sidestepped, so I tried it again - to my delight!

[4:07 PM] He says: me...I'm completely burnt out at the moment
[4:08 PM] I say: Oh dear. How do you feel?
[4:09 PM] He says: mostly sleeping for about 2-3 hrs for the past few weeks
[4:09 PM] He says: some days I had to skip
[4:10 PM] I say: But how do you feel? Sad? Mad? Disappointed?
[4:10 PM] He says: I feel excited
[4:11 PM] I say: oh! that sounds good! about what?
[4:12 PM] He says: about some of the stuff I'm working on ...

Now "how do you feel" is a rather ambiguous question, so the second time I clarified, by indicating I was interested in his emotions (although I definitely revealed my assumptions there!). And yet, he stopped to check in and surprised me with "I feel excited," which led to a short conversation becoming a new Product Owner, and how much satisfaction it brought him! A month earlier, it might have gone differently on my part - this fictitious alternate path, leads to a rather "down" conversation, in which my assumptions may have reinforced a hopeless mood for my colleague:

[4:07 PM] He said: me...I'm completely burnt out at the moment
[4:08 PM] I'd say: Oh shoot! Are you getting enough sleeping?
[4:09 PM] He said: only 2-3 hrs for the past few weeks, some days I had to skip
[4:09 PM] He said: too many things and the damn day only has 24 hrs ;)
[4:10 PM] I'd say: I know what you mean. Can you get some sleep soon?
[4:10 PM] He'd say: Not really :-( the baby is teething again
[4:11 PM] I'd say: Rats. You must be frustrated
[4:12 PM] He'd say: yup
[4:12 PM] I'd say: Well, let's get this business done quickly then...

It seems to me there's really no opening for new conversational directions when the questions have "yes/no" answers. And by projecting my assumption about his mood, I missed the opportunity to celebrate a great new thing in his career! Fortunately, this wasn't the conversation we had :-) .

So next time a team member is rehashing, yet again, the story of something that happened months ago, instead of asking: "Why are we talking about this again?" try asking an open-ended question, like: "What do you make of that?" Listen carefully: it might surface some underlying issue that people have felt uncomfortable talking about. A "safe" workplace would, of course, maximise the effectiveness of this question - providing motivation to rout out the unnecessary "Why" (blaming) questions!

More on Powerful Questions:

THE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONS: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Action
by Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs.

Powerful Questions for Agile Teams
by Lyssa Adkins

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