I’m an executive coach. And when I’m asked what, exactly, it is that I do, I like to respond that I ask leaders questions for a living.
In professional settings, powerful questions can help people unlock their own best thinking, clarify their perspective, offer a path forward, introduce new options, or energize their outlook. And in almost every instance, I’ve found that asking is better than telling.
This lesson applies to my personal life, too. Asking better questions to everyone I know has made me a better partner, boss, sister, and friend. So I’ve developed a cheat code: a set of go-to questions to improve all the relationships in your life, backed by research and tested by professional question-askers like me.
4 executive coaching questions that stand to improve all of your relationships
1. How can I be most helpful right now?
As friends, partners, parents, co-workers, it’s a natural instinct to want to be helpful. When someone comes to you with a challenge or concern, of course you want to jump in with solutions, ideas, and advice. But as clinical psychologist Relly Nadler, PsyD, has pointed out, there are actually many reasons why someone might come to you.
For instance, someone might want to vent, share information, feel validated, brainstorm ideas together, or receive clear direction. So pausing to ask “How can I be most helpful right now?” early in a conversation affords a person the opportunity to ask for what they need.
You can only meet someone’s needs when you get curious and ask what those needs actually are.
When your kid comes to you with a low-scoring test, maybe they want to vent about how hard it was despite having studied, not brainstorm how to bring the grade up. And when an employee is having trouble with a project, they might just want you to validate their approach. Regardless of the specific scenario, you can only meet someone’s needs when you get curious and ask what those needs actually are.
2. What aspect of the problem is challenging you?
Psychologists refer to a cognitive bias called the false consensus effect, which is the incorrect assumption that other people are similar to us in any number of ways. We subconsciously believe that someone must enjoy the same things, struggle with the same challenges, and share the same experiences. But that belief is often squarely wrong.
Over drinks recently, a friend was venting to me about her busy schedule. My immediate takeaway for how she might improve her situation was to cut down on her social engagements and learn how to say “no!” As someone with more introverted tendencies, that’s how I would feel—but that’s me.
She let me know she actually feels more energized as a result of meeting up with friends. So, the life shift she felt would actually make things better for herself was figuring out a better dog-walker situation so she wouldn’t need to come home between activities. The key way this question stands to improve relationships is that it zeroes in on what aspect of a problem is tripping someone up.
3. This is what I’m hearing: [playback]. Is that right?
There are all kinds of reasons we misunderstand each other, which is a bummer, given that feeling heard both feels good and builds trust. By regularly playing back what you hear—repeating the key messages or emotions you’re hearing in a conversation and then checking to see if you understand correctly—you create a space where someone feels deeply understood.
Sometimes they’ll correct you, which is good! This means they’re able to add nuance or clear up confusion. Sometimes you’ll get it right on the first try, and that feels good, too. Particularly if you’re in a tough conversation where you don’t know what to say next, you can’t go wrong by simply pausing to mirror back what you’re hearing.
4. What else?
Short and sweet, “What else?” is a brilliant question to ask, because it invites someone to move beyond their comfort zone. If you’re brainstorming anything and ask “What else?” you force the person to push beyond their first (and most obvious) ideas.
This approach also works if you’re arguing. If you genuinely and kindly ask the other person, “What else do you want to make sure I hear?” then they really have to put it all out on the table. Generally speaking, if you’re looking for more depth in any relationship in your life, “What else?” is a valuable question to use because it pushes people to dig deeper.
Why you should start asking power questions to everyone in your life
Leaning on these questions has improved all of my relationships. When I ask questions, I meet people where they are, build trust, prevent miscommunication, and invite in more depth.
Not sold? To that, I have a few… well, questions:
- What about asking more, better, questions to improve your relationships is feeling hard for you, personally, right now?
- What else is hard about it?
- Based on those reflections, what’s one small thing you can try this week to make progress?
You’re defining how to use this idea—I’m just asking the questions.