NOTE: I’ve moved to janetwhalen.com Listen to older episodes of the She Breaks The Mold podcast here, or join me at the new site for newer episodes of the Minimalist Business Academy podcast
Most of us have grown up without a key skill – the ability to ask questions that empower either ourselves or the listener to take responsibility to solve a problem or find an answer.
We think it’s all about the Who, Where, Why, How and What of every situation, but there’s more to this skill. So much more.
If it was all about getting the facts, we’d be close. Still not perfect, given our penchant as humans to confuse our thoughts with facts, but that’s a topic for another day.
There’s more to this because depending on how we ask, the words we choose to include and exclude from our questions and our intention overall, we end up with either a very empowered team, co-worker (or even ourself), or we create space and discomfort and even distrust between ourselves and everyone around us.
In this episode (#40!) of the She Breaks The Mold podcast, I’ll review the key points in “QBQ: The Question Behind The Question. What to Really Ask Yourself to Eliminate Blame, Complaining and Procrastination” by John G. Miller.
**NOTE: I plan to review a new book every month so if you have suggestions, or a book you’d like to discuss, email me and we can talk about it!)
What You'll Learn In This Episode:
- How this simple, quick read can help you turn your biggest frustrations into incredibly empowering plans that move your business forward
- The three keys to an excellent question. Seriously – every powerful question you ask should contain all three!
- Which of the What, Who, Why, How and Where question starters are the keys to powerful questions and which ones should you avoid?
- How to turn a disempowering, blaming question into one that drives action and purpose
- How most of our questions keep us in victim-mode
- How to use these techniques to promote true servant leadership in your organization
To celebrate Episode 40 (which I’m looking at as evidence of my own stick-tuitiveness with this podcast project, I’m changing things up a little. And I’ll get to what’s changing at the end of this episode, but first I want to share a little about how my own thought errors have led me astray about my podcast lately – it’s funny that a friend of mine noticed my last episode number and sent me a text to say “congrats! #39 already?! Wow”. Which was completely kind and lovely of her and I really appreciated it. But I also told her where my brain went immediately when she mentioned this – I actually said to her: “You know what’s funny? I had just been thinking how if I had stuck to my original weekly posting schedule when I started this podcast coming up on two years ago, I would (read: should) be closer to episode 100 by now. Instead of seeing the success of sticking to this project for almost 2 years, growing an audience of women who have been helped by the content I and my guests provide, I only thought about how I DIDN’T succeed.
We do this to ourselves with surprising regularity my friends, and we need to stop it! I say this from a place of love, not to beat you or myself up with the old, unhelpful thinking. Instead we have to see how our current, unproductive and disempowering thoughts keep us stuck where we are – keep us not reaching for success, but rather evidence of why we believe we’ve failed. To change our unproductive thoughts, we first have to be aware of them and next we have to take responsibility for how continuing to think them will make us feel.
I’ve recently been upgrading my skills and certifications through The Life Coach School – Brooke Castillo’s coaching certification program (if you haven’t yet listened to her podcast, what are you waiting for? It will blow your mind and change your life. In Brooke’s words, “let it”). Side note – if your coach isn’t constantly working on her (or his) own personal and professional development, ask yourself why you want to keep working with them…seriously. I’ll talk a lot more about this work and Brooke’s coaching model that helps us see how our thoughts are running us, not the other way around, in upcoming episodes. But it occurs to me I have so much to share about what I’m learning that I should really be sharing it with you – to help you learn it too.
I’m a voracious learner. Three of my top gallup strengthsfinder strengths are learner, input and intellection which mean I’m driven to keep learning new things, absorbing new information like a sponge and finding ways to incorporate it into my world. My clients often say things like “You have a resource, a book, a website or link for everything don’t you?” And I would have to admit that yes, that’s true. I used to look at this like a useless vat of information that was only interesting to me and something I do to avoid other work, or to procrastinate. But now that my work actually relies on my being educated in this way, it makes perfect sense that I not only keep doing it for myself and my own life, but that I share it with you too.
I’m so lucky to do this work – to be able to immerse myself in what I already love and enjoy doing! In that vein, I’m introducing a new feature to the podcast: A book review segment that I’ll include once per month – typically business, or thought work, or mindset related stuff that helps me and I believe will help you too. Selfishly, this will also help me power through the stack of books on my bedside table that seems to grow by the day 😉
Another thing my clients also tell me frequently is that I always know the exact right thing to say. And I hate to pull back the curtain on these Oz-like tendencies, but the truth is, I don’t. I do, however, know the right questions to ask. Or at least the value of a good question. Because I’ve been working on this for the past few years and, well, I don’t believe you can be a good coach unless you master this.
The great thing is that we can all learn to ask ourselves better questions and to question the world around us in a more productive and empowering way. We really haven’t been trained to do this but when you try it, you’ll see a world of difference in your life. You might even start to think the rest of the world has changed, but I promise – it’s just you and the way you view the world that has changed everything else.
So to help you get started on how to ask yourself and the people you live and work with every day better questions, I’ll to introduce a book called “QBQ (The Question Behind the Question) – What to Really Ask Yourself to Eliminate Blame, Complaining and Procrastination by John G. Miller.
At its simplest, this is a book about personal accountability. The book offers lessons that work for business or daily life (which I find most do, if you’re someone with the integrity to work the way you live). It’s based on the idea that our first reactions to circumstances or thoughts in our own mind are often negative, which brings about the formation of unhelpful/disempowering questions
Most of us have heard that good questions are usually open-ended, and require some thought from the person being questioned. When I was at PR school back in the day, we learned the most important things to include in a press release were typically answers to What, When, Who, Where, Why and How. These are the elementary basics to questioning, but they don’t answer the really important stuff, as it turns out. We might get facts from them, but we also get a whole lot of drama, story and other unhelpful stuff coming from them.
The QBQ author, John G Miller, suggests a simple way to uncover whether or not your question is a “good” one: Good questions typically have three parts:
- They ask What or How?
- They include the word “I”
- They reference an action
When, Why and Who questions can come across as blaming – shifting responsibility for your lack of understanding or ability to move forward onto someone else. When you think about it, they’re also powerless questions. They suggest you’re just sitting around wringing your hands in frustration because “someone else” didn’t take on fixing the problem you’re having.
Examples of these would be:
“When is the printer going to be fixed? I have an assignment due”
“Why is that customer complaining so much? Don’t they see what we’ve tried to do to make things easier for them?
“Who is responsible for this mess and who is going to clean it up?”
“Whose department includes dealing with customer complaints?”
You can see how these kinds of questions shift or completely shirk responsibility, are disempowering and keep the questioner in her victim mindset. I was thinking another way of figuring out if a question is good or not is to make it an “if only” statement. So:
“If only the printer was working. My assignment is going to be late”
“If only that customer would stop complaining” or “If only they could see how much work we’re doing behind the scenes to help them”
“If only someone would clean up this mess”
“If only someone in customer service would do their jobs”
This is victim mentality and it doesn’t get us anywhere. Instead we stay stuck ruminating about all the ways we’re helpless to move forward – powerless to do change our circumstances or our thoughts about them. It makes us feel like we have no choices when, in fact, everything we think, and believe is a choice
If you can catch them in your mind as they float by (as do about 65,000 other thoughts and questions in a day) you can use them to prompt you to ask better questions – how or what questions. This is the crux of the book: if we can look at every question as a decision point – what question would we choose to ask? One that empowers our own thinking and our own solutions? Or one that gives our power away and leaves us in a place of victimhood?
We can turn almost any question around if we just take a moment to look at what we’re asking before we ask. How and What questions are where we want to live – whether you’re asking yourself or someone else. They get to the crux of the problem and how to make it better, or what to do to solve it straight away. So: instead of “Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?” A better question might be “What am I doing about this?”
You might consider that a bridge question to that final one (if you think you’re not quite ready to act) might be: “Why am I not doing anything about this?” But that one probably won’t get you anywhere either because the answer won’t be an active answer. It might even be an excuse. The only Bright side would be at least you’ll be aware of it, but you have to be particularly self-aware to see that objectively and then be able to act on it.
Never ask questions like that of someone else – that’s why Miller suggests all good questions include “I”. If I tried to turn “Why am I not doing anything about this” into “Why is Jane not doing anything about this”, it becomes completely disempowering and victimmy and outside the scope of what I can impact on my own.
For those of you who have employees, these disempowering questions might look like, “Why don’t they take responsibility for their jobs?” “Why do I have to keep telling them what to do?” (a sneaky one because it includes “I” but is really about them) If you take some time to think about those questions, you’ll see they’re not empowering you or them to change anything. You’re just spinning in a vortex of negativity, complaining and victimhood. Better questions might be, “What training or assistance have I not offered my employees that’s resulting in these behaviours?” or “How can I motivate them to see their roles in a new, more productive light” or even “What am I overlooking in my hiring process that I keep hiring employees who don’t understand responsibility for their roles and success?”
These are the questions my instructor Brooke Castillo would say lead us to emotional adulthood – the state of being where we hold ourselves accountable not only for our challenges, but for the solutions as well. We stop looking outside ourselves for why things aren’t going well and do everything within our own power to resolve issues that we can impact. Instead of asking ourselves “Why is this happening TO me” we think “Why is this happening FOR me?” In other words, what is here for me to learn?
That’s not to say we can affect everything (of course we can’t), but we can impact more than we think even if it’s just to change our own mindset about a situation so we see it from a place of empowerment instead of lack of control
When we look outside ourselves for answers, we’ll never get them because we can only ever control our own thoughts and behavior – if you’ve gotten to adulthood, emotional or otherwise, you’re probably very experienced in the realm of not being able to change other people or their thoughts, no matter how hard you try, right? And yet most of us still try and end up frustrated over and over.
I KNOW that my automatic questions and thoughts that my primitive brain is firing at me all day long are likely going to take me to that place of Who, Why or When – so I have to stop, think and retrain my brain to notice when this happens and redirect it to more accountable, responsible and empowering ones.
The book also touches on the subject of servant leadership and with the QBQ method as a key behavior of servant leaders. They don’t ask – who can do this for me? But rather whom can I serve by doing this myself? Quote from the book: They don’t say “I’m the boss so you can do this for me” rather “As a leader, I’m here to help you reach your goals” (which, of course, are also the goals of the organization)
QBQ is a simple, quick read most people can finish in a short time, but I recommend sitting with the lessons and trying them out for yourself. If you have a journaling practice, you might try thinking of a few of your biggest frustrations and questioning yourself about them in the way they come up without thinking about it – it might be the most emotionally unaware or immature thought you have all day but allow it – look at the question you wrote down, think about what it means, who you’re holding responsible, where you’re abdicating personal responsibility and how you could rework the question to best understand your own role in fixing the problem?
Before anyone writes me and says “hang on, what about situations where someone blames me for something? Or where I really am a victim of discrimination or something that’s unfair?”
None of this is intended to be about fairness or idealism. This is about how we can each feel at our most responsible, feel our best about our own role and actions and reactions to the things that happen in our lives. There is always a way to look at a question or situation differently. Whenever I question this, I think of powerful examples like Malala – who as a young girl was shot in the head by men who wanted to take her down for promoting education for girls in her community. And yet she continues, unabated, with her goal even though the threat to her life hasn’t gone anywhere. She hasn’t let a horrible personal trauma stop her, limit her or control her and the power and influence of her example is massive. For her, the question remains, “What can I do to ensure young girls and women around the world have access to education?”. It’s a question with a What, an I and an action. And look at her results.If you’re listening to this podcast, my guess is you’re not dealing with anything even close to this in your life and business. So think hard about the excuses you give yourself for remaining a victim when you could change your future by learning how to change your questions and take responsibility for the possibilities that lie in the answers.
I hope this helps next time you’re faced with a problem you’re questioning. Remember to stop, think about the question you asked your team, your customers or yourself, and think about how to empower yourself to find the answer. It’s usually by changing how you ask the question.
Thanks again for joining me my friends. As I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, I’m going to be making some changes to the podcast. To start, I’ll put a new episode up every week. They’re likely to be shorter, but will focus more on individual tools or issues you’re facing in your work and ideas to help you manage them. I’ll have far fewer interview episodes because while I think it can be really inspiring to hear how other women are managing their work and businesses, sometimes we just need new tools or a mindset shift to help us move forward in OURS so we can be the inspiring example for ourselves. It’s my goal to help you do that, so look forward to more topics like this one that will bring real change to your day to day – the kinds of things that if we were working together, we would be talking about.
Of course, if you’d like to work with me 1:1, I offer a free 30 minute mini-session to anyone who wants to try out coaching and see if we’d be a good fit to work together. You can book on by visiting beambitiousforher.com/calendar and booking a 30-minute time slot that works for you.
I hope you have a great week and that you’ll join me again next Wednesday.