Leader, boss, parent, mentor, friend — as we embody each of these roles, we are consistently looked to for advice. They come to us when they aren’t sure what to do next. They bring us their intractable problems, looking for solutions.
And let’s be honest — it feels pretty good to be needed like this. And it feels good to solve problems for others, especially those who are close to us. But in almost every instance, the best and most helpful thing you can do is the opposite.
Don’t solve their problem. Ask a question instead.
This can feel counterintuitive at first, and it’s especially challenging when you’re feeling overwhelmed with life and work and you just need to get this person situated so you can move on to other things.
But when it comes to leadership and coaching (and parenting, and being a good person), one of the laziest and most counterproductive things you can do is try to solve someone else’s problem.
Instead, try to ask a question that allows the person to explore different courses of action for themselves. Ask a question that makes them rethink where their true challenge lies, or how they are prioritizing things. Ask what they are hoping to achieve, to help them focus on the path toward that end.
Asking great questions helps you avoid putting misplaced energy into solving the wrong problems, and it can lead to unexpected and elegant solutions.
The mantra of positive intent
The foundation of positive intent is a mantra of two core questions:
How can I help?
What can I learn?
In every difficult situation, with any challenge that arises, ask yourself, “How can I help?” Try to find some way to make the situation better or move things forward.
Failing that, stay curious. Ask yourself, “What can I learn?” Try to learn something about the other person, the landscape around the problem, or yourself.
It takes some practice, and you will never perfect it. For example, if your teenage daughter comes home after curfew, your first instinct is probably not to ask, “How can I help?” That’s ok. We’re only human.
But rather than diving into the same, tired argument you’ve had dozens of times already, maybe you can take your leverage here — in this case, her guilt — to force a genuine, human interaction. Be generous and stay curious. How can you help? What can you learn?
Ask about her evening; ask about her friends. Maybe you’ll find out she’s going through an issue that reminds you of something from your past, which you can share with her, and which might help her see a different way forward (and see you in a new light).
This is where the magic of positive intent appears. Not only have you turned a potentially negative situation into something positive, but your daughter in this moment considers you an actual person, not just a parent. She understands and respects you in a new way. You have learned something about her, and you’ve improved your relationship in the process.
And it doesn’t stop there. Your bystander audience in this scenario — your eavesdropping partner down the hall — just overheard something remarkable. Rather than the shouting match they might have expected, they heard a mature, revealing, vulnerable conversation between the two most important people in their world.
You and your daughter walk away smiling. Your partner walks away smiling. They might tell a friend, or your mother-in-law, about what just transpired, and then your hidden audiences begin smiling too. The next time you interact with any of these people, you’ll have the benefit of the doubt, and your relationships will be healthier.
All that, because you resisted your default reaction to your daughter coming home late, and asked yourself, “What can I learn?” instead. Because you asked your daughter a great question instead of diving into a lecture.
The mantra can also transform our most mundane moments — for example, that meeting you accepted out of obligation, but is really just a massive waste of your time — into something productive. You might have no interest in the topic at hand, but ask yourself “How can I help?” and “What can I learn?” Could you provide some value by way of your particular perspective or connections? Could you ask an interesting question and learn something new about a person who works in a different department?
These are tiny tweaks to your daily interactions, and you may not see immediate benefits from them, but think about the perception of everyone around you. The help you provide to others, and your genuine interest in them, are the building blocks of trusting relationships.
The mantra can also help us through our darkest moments.
The unexpected death of a loved one — How can I help? — can lead to deeper connections with those who remain, or a new perspective on your priorities in life.
The loss of a job — What can I learn? — will undoubtedly confer lessons that will benefit you.
Generosity and curiosity, like leadership and empathy, are skills that require daily practice. They are the cornerstones of a life lived with positive intent — a life of serenity and growth, full of great questions that open minds and create elegant solutions.
Ask dumb questions
Great questions can be revelatory, even life-changing. But don’t underestimate the value of a dumb question asked at just the right time.
Asking a dumb question is a sign of humility — that you know what you don’t know — and allows the other person to explain something that is fundamental to them (which is valuable to both of you).
Asking a dumb question also gives you a moment to gather your thoughts, and to formulate a great question that can push things forward from this new point of understanding.
If you’re in a conversation or a meeting and aren’t sure where to go next, try asking a dumb question. Present it as such:
“This might be a dumb question, but …
… what do you mean when you say [word or phrase]?”
… who are we doing/making this for?”
… what are you trying to accomplish?”
These are seemingly basic questions, but give your full attention to their answer, and focus clearly on your response. Once they articulate their position, you’ll be ready to move from your dumb question and into a great question, which can open their mind to new possibilities.
Even dumb questions can be great questions. But you must ask them with positive intent, and you must ask them well.
Your first step: Don’t start with ‘why’
In his famous TED Talk (and book), Simon Sinek tells us to start with “why.”
He’s right, of course, because his “why” isn’t a question. It’s a noun. It’s the purpose in your core that centers you during a crisis, guides how you move through life and work, and helps you decide among competing or conflicting priorities.
But we’re talking about questions. And if you’re trying to ask great questions, you better not start with “why.” Here’s why.
A question that begins with “why” makes people feel like they’re being interrogated — like they did something wrong, something that requires explanation. And then, when they start their explanation, most likely they’ll be explaining something that’s entirely secondary to the point of your initial question.
The word “why” brings with it the implication that a simple, good, justifiable, comprehensible reason exists for what is likely a very complex thing.
“Why would you do that?”
For no reason and a million reasons. Where shall I begin?
“Why do they think that?”
Because every relationship they’ve had since birth has molded their worldview.
“Why aren’t we doing that?”
I could try to explain, or we could just start doing it.
“Why can’t we get this right?”
Our failings are to blame, boss, as are yours.
You cannot possibly understand people and their actions and their emotions by asking questions that start with “why,” so don’t do it. Try starting with “what” or “how” instead.
“What were you trying to accomplish?”
“How does that person’s perspective differ from your own?”
“What are the benefits they gain by doing that in that way? Should we try that?”
“How can we be better at this? What can we do?”
Better questions yield better answers. Better answers provide greater insights. Greater insights lead to better judgement. Better judgement leads to greater success. And all of it builds trust and loyalty.
The habit of positive intent
Adopting a life of positive intent is simple, but it is not easy. It requires consistent self-analysis, and it requires the identification of bad habits and the creation of good habits.
Identifying and studying your bad habits is the first step. To identify your bad habits, start with the bad outcomes you want to avoid, and work backward from there.
Working after hours is an outcome we’d all like to avoid. We work after hours because we have too much to do. We have too much to do, in part, because we say “yes” to every request that comes our way.
Saying “yes” immediately to every request is a bad habit. It’s lazy.
Instead of saying “yes” to everything, consider whether an assignment can be delegated, or if it is truly essential to the mission of the organization, or if it’s really as urgent as it appears. This is where curiosity comes in — you ask a good question about the request before you begin working on it. Asking good questions is a habit of positive intent.
When a colleague or your boss comes to you with a request, ask a question instead of saying “yes.” Am I the right person to fulfill this request? Is the urgency around this real, or arbitrary? And if you do decide to help, keep asking questions. Who is this for? What is it for?
You are now much more clear on what is needed from you, and you can fit the work into your schedule thoughtfully. Or maybe you know enough about the request that you can delegate it to someone else. Or maybe you’ll realize you’re the wrong person for the task, or that some other action might accomplish the same goal.
The result is that you have less on your plate, and maybe now you don’t need to work after hours.
And the next time that person requests something from you, they will be more thoughtful and provide more context, which will save you the step of asking basic questions — you are now saving each other time, and what is more valuable than that? You’ve created one good habit on top of another, and things are better for everyone.
This is more of the magic of positive intent. When you adopt a mindset of generosity and curiosity and apply them throughout your life, the benefits are manifold. Your life becomes simpler, your relationships become more trusting, and you become all but immune to adversity.
All of these things are within your control. You need only to decide that they matter, and then begin the work.
From the book Positive Intent: Five Principles to Improve Your Life and Leadership, by James Ryan Leonard.
Copyright © 2019 by James Ryan Leonard.