Reframe Problems as Questions to Find Better Solutions

When even one person in a meeting describes a new idea in hopeless terms such as, “That will never work,” or “We can’t do any better,” it can start a downward spiral that shuts down creativity, innovation and problem solving. Even small improvements seem unrealistic and out of reach as thinking narrows.
 
A study published in Small Group Research and reported in Inc. found that, “When one person starts to complain in a meeting by expressing so-called ‘killer phrases’ that reflect futility or an unchangeable state . . . other meeting attendees begin to complain, starting a complaining cycle that significantly reduces group outcomes.”
 
A great technique to stop that downward trajectory involves reframing objections and negative predictions as questions. 
 
The art of reframing
When you encounter a question, it sets off a mental reflex that gets your brain thinking how to answer, even to the exclusion of any other activity. The motivational speaker and author Tony Robbins often advises that you must be careful what questions you ask your brain because it will strive to answer them, no matter how negative or off base.
 
The trick is to ask your brain (and the brains of your colleagues) constructive and thought-provoking questions that can generate more fruitful conversation and lead to ideas that just might work.
 
For example, if you’re in a meeting to figure out how to double sales next year, the discussion might soon devolve into a complaint spiral with feedback such as, “It’s impossible. We won’t even be able to increase sales 10%.” That discussion is going nowhere fast.
 
Instead, if you reframe the objection into a question such as, “What kind of support would the sales team need to double sales?” Or, “Where could we reallocate resources to invest more time, money and energy against an aggressive sales goal?”
 
Questions are a strong start
Shifting from complaining to questioning is a good starting point, but it’s not a silver bullet. It may not be feasible to double sales in a year, or it may cost so much to do so that it would be counter-productive. But getting in the habit of injecting questions into conversations that seem to be going nowhere can move you from a dead-end into new avenues to explore.
 
“Asking questions is a uniquely powerful tool for unlocking value in organizations: It spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and performance improvement, it builds rapport and trust among team members,” according to Professors of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, Alison Wood Brooks, Ph.D., and Leslie K. John, Ph.D. Unfortunately, the authors say that many business leaders don’t think of posing effective questions as a skill that can be learned, or understand how questions can make conversations more productive.
 
But that is a big missed opportunity. In addition to helping to uncover possible new solutions, good questions can also mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards.
 
Ask questions like a pro
In some professions, learning to ask effective questions is a formal part of the training. Doctors, lawyers and journalists are taught how to ask questions that draw out critical information. Even though that’s not part of most business programs, you can teach yourself with a new mindset and a few specific techniques.
 
  1. Start by checking your ego. There is often so much pressure to gain the spotlight and prove your value in competitive business situations that people can fear looking weak if they spend too much time listening rather than talking. But research that Brooks and John point to from fellow Harvard colleagues shows that asking questions can help you gain critical information that can increase performance and make a positive impression at the same time. In fact, the researchers found that people who ask more questions are viewed more positively.
 
  1. Know whether the situation is competitive or cooperative. Brooks and John acknowledge that many workplace conversations have a competitive or challenging undertone, such as discussing the allocation of scarce resources, arguing varied viewpoints or even providing performance feedback. In these situations, they suggest asking direct and detailed questions to avoid evasive answers and to pry out as much information as possible. They also advise asking the most sensitive question first so that the conversation becomes less threatening as you proceed.
 
In more friendly conversations, you can lean in to open-ended questions and start with the least sensitive queries to build rapport.
 
  1. Lean in to follow up. These types of questions not only elicit additional information, they show you are listening, care about the conversation and are open to learning more. Asking follow-up questions makes others feel respected and heard. They also don’t require any preparation as they will flow naturally from what the other person has said.
 
  1. Practice the skill more often. Start by deciding to ask more questions in cooperative, easy situations so that you will feel more comfortable relying on the skill when things get heated. When engaged in difficult conversations, revisit your role as a good questioner and look for ways to reframe problems as provocative questions that can get everyone thinking in a new direction.
 
When you ask questions that prompt creative thinking, you will engage your own brain (and those of other conversation participants) in trying to answer it, even if it’s a bit tricky and requires some innovative problem solving. After all, that’s what you’re looking for.

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