Focus on the Problem, Not the Person

For years, Best-in-Class consultants used a drill down technique known as the 5 Ws of Consulting. The practice of asking the client a “why” question five times in a row resulted in a deeper understanding of the potential root cause and often revealed 2-3 additional areas where the consultant could bring solutions to bare. The only drawback was the emotional response given by many clients who tended to be defensive.

Consultants returning to their offices after using such a systematic approach of discovery were seen as heroes by their peers and executives. They were praised for their ability to unearth additional opportunities that typically led to contract extensions. Unfortunately, the celebrations would include numerous jokes about the defensiveness of the client due to his or her previous decisions being pulled into the spotlight of reason.

Psychologists have learned that the client’s defensiveness might not have been generated by their bad choices being exposed, but rather from the knee jerk reaction that “why” questions generate.

The client-consultant relationship can be viewed in the same manner as a marriage or significant relationship. Everyone is familiar with the feelings that surge through our veins when a significant other asks us “why” we did something.

The mere question culturally suggests that the person’s decision was wrong and the person asking is attempting to understand what led to the poor choice – Generating instant defensiveness. Communication experts agree that asking a “why” question puts a wall up between the client and consultant, demanding additional diplomacy in order to convince the client that the consultant is really on their side.

Efforts to help the client understand that the outcome is in their best interest require a certain level of coddling. The amount of energy used to turn the negative situation around is staggering. Depending on the expert asked, it takes 7 touch points to neutralize the cultural reaction and 11 to overcome it. This is only achieved by the consultant’s ability to smooth things over. However, it begs the question, “Why ask why questions?”

Top communicators in the entertainment industry and family psychology practices have learned that a person can drill down in a more comfortable manner by asking “what” questions. The mere replacement of the word “what” changes the cultural dynamics developed over decades of accusatory messages. In fact, it goes a step further by making the client feel like the consultant is coming along side of them to help resolve their dilemma.

Framing a “what” question requires a shift in perspective, a patient consultant, and a desire to formulate good questions over the first one that comes to mind. Asking, “Why did you decide to waive steps three and four in the process?” will certainly cause the person to be defensive. Asking, “What about the situation or process led you to waive steps three and four?” causes the person to focus on the problem at hand, not their decision.

It’s all about coming along side to collaborate in troubleshooting the situation. “What” questions shift the focus onto the problem needing review, while “why” questions put the focus on the decision maker. The good news is that “what” questions not only bring about the same drill down potential that reveals additional consulting opportunities, but it also avoids invoking defensiveness based on how our culture trained us to react.

Only top consultants are able to put aside the first question that pops into their mind and replace it with a good “what” question before they speak. And, while top consultants are typically more suited for diplomacy and tact, they find themselves using those skills less often with the implementation of “what” questions during their discovery process.

Those consultants that believe people matter and results count, will add “what” questions to their tool belt.

Copyright © 2011 By CJ Powers

2 thoughts on “Focus on the Problem, Not the Person

  1. Very insightful & most helpful. Every parent would benefit tremendously, and their kids, if “what” was used rather than “why”. Why didn’t I know that? Why didn’t I use that? Thanks!

  2. Pingback: 2013 CJ’s Corner in Review | CJ's Corner

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