How many times do you find a difficult conversation with someone provoking this feeling inside. A person can be so awkward and so militant that sometimes it is the only question that we are left with as reason seems to vacated the discussion completely!
We all know conversations that rise to this incredible level of stress and anxiety. The reasons can be varied. The purpose of the argument can have got lost in the discussion. The demands can be contradictory. The needs impossible to reconcile. The rationale now totally lost in illogicality.
At these times, ‘So what do you want?’ is often the question that really begs to be asked. However, we all recognise that even when this is the case it can be almost impossible to ask it ….at least in a way that is really a question asking for an honest and reflective answer rather than a statement of exasperation at the impasse evident in the conversation.
There is ample evidence that ‘emotions’ trump ‘rationality’ in our brains. They get to the action centres ahead of any messages from our prefrontal cortex (the rational bit that helps to moderate what we think about something and how we act) and pump up the body reducing the desire to pay any attention to it when it finally catches on what is going on!
Yet especially when trying to handle a change it is often this sort of question that is essential if the conversation is to unlock the route to a solution rather than simply more aggro.
Only last year, one of the great thinkers on culture and change, Edgar Schein wrote about the power of questions put honestly and gently in ‘Humble Inquiry’ (Berrett-Koehler 2013). Others have similarly reflected on the powerful effect of even simply listening, and being recognised for doing so, in unlocking thinking in the other person.
In a difficult situation where someone is not helping things to go forward, often my wife will use precisely this approach with shop assistants, customer service staff and others. She will explain the situation that she is in and the answers that she has been given in trying to get a solution and ask them what they recommend.
Honestly asking a question demands a thinking reply not an emotional one and if asked in the best way can tip even a difficult conversation over to a route to a solution.
It is too easy to ‘get stuck in’ in a confrontation that will only escalate into total impasse when what is needed is an artful question.
Questions are powerful allies in change if used well.