On the difficulties of the questions-based approach

Photo by Kalleboo


This week I spent in the Israeli Air Force training some of its commanders on different aspects of communication and feedback. While there, I tried to implement some of the issues I regularly write about in this blog, trying to practice what I preach. What did I find? It is so hard!

One of the main exercises I participated in is a simulation of a feedback situation between a commander and a soldier. After I watch the feedback I am supposed to give my opinion of how the conversation went and use a pre-determined scale to score it. The soldiers are used to being asked a question or two about how they did and then hearing an account of their performance with recommendation for the future.

I, however, believe in the importance of resisting the temptation to provide answers, so I conducted my sessions using a lot of questions, trying to allow the person de-brief himself, see other points of view and gain insights as well as develop an ability of reflexivity. I knew it is going to be hard for me to resist saying what I think is right instead of taking the slow path of asking questions. What I did not expect is the resistance of the commanders to my method.  “Just tell us what the bottom line is”, they demanded. “All these questions and self-reflection is a waste of time, we did some things right and some things wrong – tell us what!”. For a minute there, I had to question what I believe in. For a minute there, I had to ask myself, am I doing the right thing, insisting not to give them the answers? And after I thought about it a little, it just hardened my resolve.

I do believe that people do not always know what is good for them. Not because their stupid, but because the human mind is built in a way that minimizes effort, be it physical or cognitive. Just this week the blogosphere is filled with the results of a study saying humans are happier when they’re busy, but inclined towards idleness (also see here). We know from an abundance of research into behavioral economics that people are really bad in predicting what will make them happy and how happy they will be. I do believe that there are things in life that for some people, need to be forced upon them, because they are not able to appreciate them until they actually experienced them. Yes, in the short-run, this method is annoying, frustrating and time-wasting. But when it comes to developing commanders, managers, leaders and every other kind of employee, we should not focus to much on the short-run. We need patience to build an ability of practical wisdom.

It is more important to built abilities, to make sure there is no dependency and to make sure there is always a challenge for the people around us, then making them happy in the short-run. I am not saying you should NEVER give answers. It is not like I sat there and said nothing the entire week. I am just saying you should sometimes deliberately avoid it and just focus on asking the right question and helping others ask the right questions themselves. Nametag Scott has a great post on this issue this week. Here is a short excerpt:

“Is it your place to fix this?”

That’s the question you have to ask yourself.

Especially when someone you love finds themselves on the precipice of disaster.

Sometimes you have to back off.

Yes, it requires great emotional restraint.

Yes, it requires significant self-control.

But if you don’t let people come to their own conclusions, make their own decisions and make their own mistakes, you fractionize their experiences and rob them of valuable learning opportunities.

So, I ask you once again: are you resisting the temptation to give answers?


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