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How To Use Magic To Get People To Tell You What’s Wrong

About Anything, Including Business Issues

Image from Pixabay.com

How many times have you been talking to someone who has asked for your help and yet can’t articulate what exactly they need you to help with?

It’s super frustrating, whether you’re a friend, a boss, or a consultant, and in my experience, it can all be resolved with, well — a magic wand.

OMG Can You Just Say What You Mean?

Scenario One: You’re in your favourite coffee shop listening to a friend who has been venting for the past twenty minutes about their partner. Clearly they are unhappy, yet they’ve been talking in circles and you haven’t got a clue how to help.

You: I get it. He is a jerk!
Friend: Well, not all the time. Last week he surprised me by making dinner.
You: Well that was nice…
Friend: Yeah, I guess, although I had to do all the cleanup.
You: He didn’t clean up? What kind of treat is that?
Friend: No, no, it was sweet. He just had to go to hockey that night so I had to clean up, and well, he’s a messy cook. He’s just messy. Period.
You: Yeah you’ve said he’s a slob before.
Friend: I don’t mind though. I kind of like cleaning — it’s cathartic.
You: So it was just a bad few days then?
Friend: No, I’m super frustrated. I think it’s over.
You: I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Scenario Two: You’re having a coaching conversation with an employee, and they’ve been struggling to give you some honest feedback about how they are feeling in their job.

You: It sounds like you’re frustrated.
Employee: No, no, that’s not what I mean. It’s just that sometimes I’m not sure about whether I’m fitting in here.
You: How are you and the team getting along?
Employee: Oh really good. They’ve been mostly supportive and I have been invited to the Thursday night afterwork events.
You: That’s good. How do you feel about my support and direction?
Employee: Good. Yeah, good.
You: Ok, and how about the work you do?
Employee: It’s fine! Actually I really like the new project.
You: So tell me how you aren’t feeling like you fit in.
Employee: I don’t know. It’s just a feeling.

Scenario Three: You are meeting with a client who has hired you to find some efficiencies and save money for the company. You have been trying to uncover exactly what it is that has triggered the need for this work, other than the ever-present reason of “budget cuts.”

You: It sounds like it’s more than just saving money.
Client: It is. We need to be more efficient.
You: In what way?
Client: Well, you know, generally. We should be able to do things faster and better.
You: What things?
Client: I just don’t think the way people are doing their jobs is efficient. I can’t hire more people.
You: Ok, and how do you know they need to be more efficient?
Client: Well, we always can be better, can’t we?
You: Sigh.

It’s classic, isn’t it?

You’re a problem solver by nature, and you’d love to help this person who’s in front of you, but they can’t seem to be specific about what’s wrong.

You guess, you ask nice open-ended questions, but it’s still not working.

How can you help if they can’t tell you what’s wrong?

The First Lesson

People who are frustrated often just can’t articulate the source of that frustration.

They just can’t.

There is too much going on in their heads to be really specific and, frankly, rational about what’s going on, so they often think and talk in circles.

Your open-ended questions will definitely help them focus, but it may take a while as you try to figure out and narrow down the right subject.

Don’t waste your time by asking the wrong questions.

Ask the right question!

The Right Question

“If you could wave a magic wand and fix one specific thing right now, what would you fix?”

It may take a few tries if they start off being general again (as in, “I’d fix inefficiency.”), but you can help steer that by asking the same question in a different way.

Let’s re-visit the three scenarios from before:

Scenario One:

Friend: I don’t mind though. I kind of like cleaning — it’s cathartic.
You: So it was just a bad few days then?
Friend: No, I’m super frustrated. I think it’s over.
You: OK, here’s a question then. “If you could wave a magic wand and fix one specific thing in your relationship right now, what would you fix?”
Friend: <pauses, thinks, you remain silent> Well… You mean like generally what could be better?
You: Nope. You can completely fix only ONE specific thing.
Friend: OK, well, I guess I would fix the fact that I have no idea what his schedule is day-to-day.
You: Really?
Friend: I mean if that could be better, then I wouldn’t have been surprised that I had to clean up the kitchen, even though I honestly like doing it. And all those other things — it’s always his stupid schedule and he never updates me. I feel like an afterthought.
You: Ahhh

Scenario Two:

You: So tell me how you aren’t feeling like you fit in.
Employee: I don’t know. It’s just a feeling.
You: OK, let me ask you this. If you could wave a magic wand and fix one thing about your job here, what would it be?
Employee: Oh that’s easy. It’s the project management process.
You: Really? Tell me more.
Employee: Well my background is in project management, and the team here seems interested but when I try to use the proper processes to get our projects done, no one cares, nothing gets done, and I feel super frustrated. I mean they mean well I guess, but it’s just not my way, you know?
You: Ah. Ok, let’s talk about this some more.

Scenario Three:

Client: I just don’t think the way people are doing their jobs is efficient. I can’t hire more people.
You: Ok, and how do you know they need to be more efficient?
Client: Well, we always can be better, can’t we?
You: Ok, let me ask you a weird question then. If you could wave a magic wand and fix one thing here, what would it be?
Client: Anything?
You: Anything.
Client: Well, I’d make things more efficient. I don’t get what you’re asking?
You: Yeah, it’s a weird question. Bear with me. Think of ONE thing — just one — that keeps you awake at night. That bugs you when you are driving home on Fridays. That makes you think “if only this thing would go away…” That’s the thing you’d use your magic wand for.
Client: Hmm… let me think — no, wait. I know. Every other week I freak out when I see the overtime requests before the payroll run. I actually ran a report the other day and overtime has been creeping up for the last six months. I don’t have budget for it, I can’t hire more people, and I don’t understand where it’s coming from. So that’s what I’d get rid of — overtime!
You: Perfect! Let’s dig into that.

Your best bet in helping someone starts with understanding what’s really wrong, or at least what’s the top priority.

If you don’t know that, then you’re just making wild guesses and hoping you’re right.

Try asking the Magic Wand question, and watch it get you to the answers more quickly and more confidently.


For more tips and tricks on how to “Crush It” at work, check out my publication, “At The Whiteboard.”