What is the hardest question to ask? What comes to mind for you? There are plenty that set you up for a potentially awkward social moment, for sure.
How much do you earn?
Will you marry me?
What’s this rash?
Is that it?
But I’m not really talking about those.
I’m talking about the questions you use in your day-to-day working life, the questions you ask to become a more effective manager and leader.
And there’s one question that’s the hardest of them all.
It also happens to be the most powerful coaching question in the world.
Now, there’s a problem with making a claim like that. People lean forward, expecting the big reveal. And hoping for something David Copperfield-esque, something big and impressive.
And the hardest/best coaching question in the world is actually a little anticlimactic on first reveal.
Just three words:
“And what else?”
Already I can sense you raising your eyebrows, a little skeptical. “Is that it?”
Why it’s So Powerful
“And what else?” — we’ll call it the AWE question, as it’s a punchy acronym — earns its crown because of the twofold power it packs.
First, it supercharges any other question you’ve asked. You should know that the first answer someone gives you is never their only answer, and it’s rarely their best answer. Ask “And what else?” and you’ll get more bang for your buck. Here’s an example, using the focus question from my new book, The Coaching Habit.
“What’s the real challenge here for you?”
“And what else [is a challenge]?”
“And what else?”
“So… what’s the real challenge here for you?”
Even without knowing the context or the answers, you can see how this conversation goes at least one level deeper than it would if you relied on just the answer to your initial question.
Why It’s So Difficult
The second reason the AWE question works so well is also the reason it’s the hardest question to ask. It’s a self-management tool for you. Because when you ask “And what else?” you’re choosing to stay curious rather than move into advice-giving mode.
And you love giving advice. You’re an advice-giving maniac. A monster. You don’t even know what the issue is, but you’re already just waiting for the other person to be quiet so you can tell them what to do.
I know this, because it’s true of almost every manager and leader I’ve worked with. Years of positive reinforcement, starting at school, to “add value” by having an answer means that it’s the default behavior for most of us.
Giving advice feels comfortable, and not just because it’s an old habit. It’s a position of power. When you’re giving advice, you’re in control. You’re the smart one. You know how the conversation is going to end.
When you instead ask a question, the balance of power shifts. Now they get to shape the direction of the conversation. Now they’re doing the thinking. Now they’re in control. Meantime, you’ve stepped into a place of ambiguity and uncertainty. Was that a good question? Was it the right question? Am I adding value? What answer will they give? What if it’s not the answer I’m expecting? What if it’s a crazy answer?
This is Empowerment
The “empowerment” drum has been beaten to such extent that it can now feel like an empty word, a piece of corporate jargon. Still, there’s something powerful in the idea “how do I help people take responsibility for their own freedom?”
What’s often missed in the discussion is that empowerment can mean giving up your power to someone else. That’s not easy for anyone. But staying curious and mastering a powerful coaching question or two (“And what else?” is a perfect place to start) are acts of servant leadership. Which means it can be a fast way to raising your game as a powerful, useful and engaging leader.
Michael Bungay Stanier is the Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that gives busy managers practical tools so they can coach in 10 minutes or less. Michael is the author of a number of books, including his latest The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. Download a free report on the Four Surprising Phrases to Supercharge Your Conversation at BoxOfCrayons.biz.
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