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This great four-word question will help you to coach someone into action

Sometimes it’s tough to motivate people to do something, even if it’s a goal they’ve set for themselves. For whatever reason, they’re avoiding it or they’re just tired at the prospect of doing anything about it. If they report to you, or if you’re affected by their inaction, it makes it pretty tough on you too.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could jog them into action with a simple sentence, without having to do lots of cheerleading or nagging?

Here’s a nice little example from a couple of weeks ago. I have to disguise it a bit, since this was part of a confidential management skills course that I was helping to run. But the tale is true.

I asked one of the participants “okay, the course is nearly over. What’s the next step for you? What do you want to work on back in the office?”

It was a bit of a struggle. He made that face you make when you can’t think of a single thing to say but you want to look like you’re trading off various complex ideas in your head.

Eventually he said, without much enthusiasm: “well, I suppose I’d like to get better at asking clients for more background information”.

Now, normally I would have leapt ahead and explored why it was important to ask clients for information. Then I would have gone on to ask why it was difficult, and then we would have brainstormed various ways to get round those difficulties. Obvious stuff.

The trouble is, it would have been me pushing him uphill all the way. I could nag him into exploring lots of ways to address that challenge, but likely as not, he’d forget about it the next day.

So on this occasion I didn’t do that.

Instead I said “... so you’re not as good as you’d like to be at asking clients for more background information.

"What’s that costing you?”

A simple question: what’s that costing you? Four words. But believe me, it was like opening a rusty tap. At first, the answers dripped out slowly. Then came the flood.

  • “Er, well. Sometimes I don’t get all the background I need to do the work properly…
  • “So, er, I really ought to call back but that would make me look stupid. So it takes me longer to do the work…
  • “I don’t feel like I can delegate it to anyone because they might ask me a obvious question that I don’t know the answer to. So I do it myself. One time last week, that meant staying at the office and working late into the night. And I still wasn’t sure if I was working on the right problem. Anyhow, I’ll go back to the client – often late – and sometimes it’s okay but another time I’d basically misunderstood something really fundamental, and he was pretty irritated, and it make me feel stupid and depressed…”

'Wow" I replied. “So – late nights, feeling stupid, irritated clients, depression… shall we chat about how to ask for some background?”

“You bet” he said.


The great thing here was that a simple question did all the work for me, and put him in a place where he really wanted to take the next step.

A great question to get someone motivated to change.

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