As a professional coach, I tend to ask my clients more questions than give answers. As a Jewish coach, you have to imagine that the proportion of questions to answers is significantly out of whack. But it works – for me, and for my clients. It works because I believe that, more often than not, we have the creativity, resourcefulness and reserves we need to figure out what we need, and even how to get there. (Do I ever just give advice? What do you think? Sorry – old habits die hard. Yes I do.) Answering questions helps us think about our own thinking, which most of us don’t make the time to do. Answering questions also helps us to identify what we care about, what’s working, what we need more or less of, and what the next steps should be.
While I have thousands of questions I ask my clients, I have identified Eight Questions in particular that work for almost any goal at any time. These questions can be used on your own, and they are also terrific questions to ask other people in your life.
They are, in order:
- What do you want?
- Why is that important to you?
- What’s working?
- What isn’t working?
- What’s possible?
- What do you need to move forward?
- What will you do next?
- By when?
Here’s the first step before you begin with the Eight Questions: Pick a specific area of focus in work or life. Like what? Like your relationship with your boss, your commitment to exercise, or your desire to de-clutter. It can be anything – it just needs to be meaningful to you (you’ll see why when we get to Question #2).
Got a goal? Good! Let’s get started. Oh, and one tiny rule I forgot to mention. Please limit your answers to the Eight Questions to one sentence each. Keeping your answers short and sweet will keep you focused on moving forward.
- “What do you want?”
Now, I realize that this is a huge question, and potentially overwhelming as a place to begin. Heck, what don’t I want? I want a guest room in my house, ice cream that burns calories and a double dose of lifetime health and happiness for me and my family.
It’s because this question is so broad that I recommend you start with a specific area of focus. It’s much easier to drill down into what you want right now from one particular part of your life than to strategize your entire life itself. So, if your area of focus is your relationship with your boss, your answer might be, “I want to feel more comfortable asking her for flexibility.” If you’re thinking about your exercise plan (or lack thereof), you might articulate, “I want to find an exercise I can stick with.”
What’s so magical about this question? It bypasses an assumed, unasked previous question that too many of us start our conversations with: “What’s the problem?” If you start by asking what the problem is, you’ll get stuck in story. If what you’re looking for is a future outcome that is different from your past or present, then you need to break your commitment to the old story of how things went down and build up your commitment to writing a new story.
As a parent, partner or supervisor, you’ll notice that people start with their stories first. I invite you to use Question #1, “What do you want?” as a strategic way to interrupt a story that isn’t moving someone forward. You’d be amazed at how quickly the conversation shifts from “what went wrong in the past” to “what I hope for in the future.” All with one question!
- “Why is that important to you?”
Here’s why picking a meaningful goal matters: if you are going to put the time, effort and energy into making a change, that change should resonate for you in some way. If it doesn’t, you probably won’t do it. How do I know? Think about all the relevant and meaningful goals that you haven’t yet accomplished, and you’ll realize that a meaningless goal has almost no chance of seeing the light of day.
So, back to the boss example: “I want to feel more comfortable asking her for flexibility” might be followed by “This is important to me because I want a good balance between work life and home life.” The exercise example: “I want to find an exercise I can stick with” and “This is important to me because I need more energy.”
Saying this aloud makes it clear what’s driving you to take action, and helps you recommit to your goal.
- “What’s working?”
For many of us who are struggling with a goal, it can be impossible to see that anything is already working. We are quick to focus on roadblocks, barriers, frustrations and thwarted attempts. In most cases, however, there is something – even microscopic – that is already working in our favor, and in many cases, there is a lot going well. Here is the question that allows you to stop and assess what you have or what you’re doing that’s moving you forward, or even preventing you from sliding backward. Anything positive counts – so find the bright spot and celebrate it.
Boss example: “What’s working is that my boss seems to appreciate my commitment to the company.”
Exercise example: “What’s working is that I am healthy enough to exercise.”
Hey, it’s something. And for some of us who are battling, it may be everything.
- “What isn’t working?”
You’ve been waiting for this one, right? Isn’t this the chance to unload about all of your failed attempts, injustices, and enemies? Yes – within limits. You’ve got one sentence to name the ONE thing that isn’t working for you when it comes to this goal. No compound, run-on, poorly punctuated sentences permitted!
So, what isn’t working?
Boss example: “What’s not working is that my boss seems not to care about her own work-life balance.”
Exercise example: “What’s not working is that I have quit every exercise program I’ve ever started.”
So now you know, and you’ve admitted it out loud, which makes it more manageable than the jumble in your head of all of the things working against you. What you also now know is that you have at least something working in your favor, #3 to balance #4.
In honor of Passover (and out of respect to my editor), I will end Part 1 with these Four Questions. In two weeks, we will explore the next Four Questions – where the rubber really hits the road.
So…let’s get started: What do you want?