The most amazing question

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In the formative stages of my career I was a Human Resources generalist for a large Pharmaceutical company. As an avowed problem-solver I got frustrated when people came to me with drawn-out tales of workplace woe that I just couldn’t solve for them.

I learned to manage my anxiety by using a question after they told their story that is so flexible and useful that I still use it, or a variation today. And it’s a question you can use as well. So without any further hesitation, this amazingly simple question is…..

“What do you need (or want) from me?”

A lot of leaders are problem-solvers and will welcome a steady stream of people who tell their long tales of injustice regularly. Eventually they become frustrated at being the person to continually solve problems for intelligent adults who should be able to do this on their own.

This question – asked in a neutral tone of voice and with an intent to just listen to their answer – can come in very handy at those times. What makes this question powerful is:

You might be pleasantly surprised at what they need/want: Most people just want you to listen to their story. That’s a big deal, because it gets you out of the mode of problem-solver. If you want them to grow and learn to solve their own problems, this question might be the key.

It can help them to take some responsibility: Rather than have you jump to conclusions about how to fix their situation just listen to their answer. With your quiet presence they can often realize how they have some responsibility for the situation. When that happens, they might be on the road to growth. This is a good thing for you as they gain confidence to deal with their issues themselves.

It makes them think: As people reply to this question, they are thinking out loud. As they think, they may be coming up with some ideas that will help them to come to their own solutions (I won’t guarantee that, but at least they are thinking about their dilemma). At the very least, if you listen carefully, you might hear that they are getting clarity and may later have insight on some actions they can take.

They’ll get tired of hearing it: The next time, and the time after that when they come to you with their sorrowful situations, you can ask this question again in a neutral tone. With your encouragement, they may eventually gain some confidence to take care of things without your intervention. That will feel a lot like freedom to you.

Simple and straightforward, the question “What do you want/need from me?” can help employees to think for themselves. With your encouragement they might see that they are fully able to problem-solve their own dilemmas. And that will feel like freedom to you

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.