Dumb Questions

My go to tool in coaching is to ask a question. I used to try and give people advice but I learned that no one listens to uninvited advice. Telling people want to do can work in a position of authority but they wont take the time to ask why you want them to do it differently and are happy to abandon it all when you leave. So I take a different approach and ask them about what they are doing already.

Sometimes I can’t help myself and ask pretty leading questions:

“Why are you not using Test Driven Development?”

But I try and avoid asking that kind of question. They know exactly what I’m trying to suggest and that may put them on the defensive or try and placate me with a “We try to do it” type of answer. I try and make it sound as innocent as possible but I find the questions work a lot better when they sound dumb.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s no such thing as a dumb question. But I’m trying to underplay my experience and implied authority. I want them to believe they need to explain something to me that is simple to them. “Poor Geoff doesn’t understand. Let’s take pity on him and fill in the gaps”. And sometimes I don’t know something important and they’ll fill me in to understand why they do things a certain way and my questions stop.

But when it works best it seems like a open question with no special knowledge

“I noticed when it came time to make that big decision everyone looked to you. Why was that?”

That’s when I get the real good stuff. What are the dynamics going on there? Do they even realise there is a problem or do they see it as a strength? Have they even realised this behaviour is happening? From there I can explore, partly so that I can find out more, but mostly so they can understand what they’re doing an why. I can see the realisation coming across their face as they discover something about their team they didn’t know before. And it might be a serious dysfunction they will want to address before it causes problems.

In more recent years I’ve built on these skills with some of the Agile Coach training from James King. He taught two frameworks to put around a conversation. SCAR and FEC. I think he likes the odd sounding names to make it easier to remember. Both are ways to structure a coaching conversation.

SCAR a slight change to the STAR interview model:

  1. Scenario
  2. Challenge
  3. Approach
  4. Result

Scenario is to clarify the problem or challenge that is being described. Try and find out what the final goals are and reasoning behind those goals.
What is the situation you are facing? Who is involved? What are you trying to achieve?

Challenge is where you find out what the challenges or constraints that are stopping the desired outcome. What do they think will be the hardest challenge to over come? What have they faced already? What will be the easiest?

Approach is a chance to discuss what they have tried already and explore other possible things they want to try. Keep in mind with all this the goal is not to give advice. You are having a discussion where they are providing solutions. Some they have considered already and some they have not. “What else could you try?” is one of the most powerful questions you can ask here.

Result is a chance to clarify what success looks like. While in the discussion of Scenario they may have described a specific ideal outcome, here they are looking at alternative outcomes. Those may be a small step towards a bigger goal or just different paths that are also acceptable. The result they now hope to come to may not be one they were originally aiming for.

The FEC model is a little simpler and is a little easier to dig deeper into any part where you like. I think of it as how we like to write essays with a clear introduction, middle and conclusion. It’s broken down into:

  1. Frame
  2. Explore
  3. Consolidate

Frame is to build the scenario that is being discussed. The desired outcomes, challenges and constraints. Be generous with the time spent here to ensure clarity of the problem and the meta conditions of the problem have all been explored. Is this problem in your top ten issues? What would others see as the ideal solution?

Explore the possible approaches. You can dig deeper into any possible approach with the SCAR or FEC model. What else could be tried? What would someone else try? What makes you think that solution could work? What condition would it not work for?

Consolidate is a chance to bring everything together. This is the problem we discussed. These are the solutions we considered. What will happen next? How and when will we know it worked? Should we follow up with another discussion?

There truly is no such thing as a dumb question. Any question can reveal a lot about a situation, the questioner and the answerer. I once said to someone:

You cannot change someone else’s behaviour. But you can get them to question their current behaviour.

So I find ways to explore a subject with someone – especially someone who is searching for solutions – a great way to drive change. Challenge their assumptions. Discover alternative solutions. Worst that could happen is they think I’m dumb.

Keep asking questions!

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