Seven questions, typically used in organizational coaching, can potentially transform the way I connect with my wife.
Several months ago, I received an e-mail from a book publicist asking if I would be willing to preview an advanced copy of The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, & Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier. In return, the publicist asked me to consider writing an article for GMP.
I’m not one to turn down a free book, so I accepted. This was not the first time I received such an offer, and some previous books I received now likely sit dust-laden on the shelves of a used bookstore. My expectations for this book were low, my skepticism high.
I will admit that, upon receiving the copy and noticing glowing recommendations from Daniel Pink and Brene Brown, two of my favorite non-fiction authors, on the back cover, a bit of skepticism dissolved, but I still remained certain the book would not lead to an official GMP article.
Yet here we are.
Since finishing the book two weeks ago, I find myself utilizing The Coaching Habit‘s progression of seven essential questions in my professional consulting and in my work with students, specifically those who are targets of bullying and aggressive behaviors. Seeing the value with these audiences, I am considering how this same information could potentially transform the way I connect with my wife.
While I have not formally attempted this dialogue with my spouse, I can envision the value. So, while the following seems like I have incorporated this seven-question process in dialogue with my spouse for years, the truth is, I’m waiting for the first opportunity. I’m inviting fellow readers to join me in this experiment.
Question #1: What’s on your mind?
If I ask her, “What’s wrong?”, I assume there is, in fact, something wrong.
If I ask her, “What’s up?”, it seems I’m only interested in a surface conversation. After all, I ask this in passing to strangers on the street not expecting a response.
If I ask her, “Whatcha thinkin’?”, I invite a more trivial answer. It’s equivalent to, “A penny for your thoughts … ”—a nicety, but not very substantial.
Asking, “What’s on your mind?” allows an open forum for my wife and me to begin a serious conversation without beginning too broadly or too narrowly. Bungay Stanier calls this the Goldilocks question. He also points out that it’s the Facebook question. Go ahead, check your Facebook page. I hadn’t realized it either. This question is asked of us on social media countless times a day and invites us to share with the world. It’s the question that gets us chatting socially.
I’m expecting, though (because I do the same), that when I ask my wife this question I’ll receive a somewhat cryptic response that, like on Facebook, will require a few comments and some digging before the real issue emerges. It invites mutual dialogue rather than directs one-sided conversation. We share this marriage, so we should share the dialogue.
Question #2: And what else?
“Is that all?”
These force a conversation toward an end point.
Often, the first thing my wife says is not what is truly at the root of what she wants to discuss. This is human nature. We’re reticent about sharing outright what’s on our minds. Either that, or we have not yet determined the true issue.
If I’m really listening as she responds, I can begin making connections in my own mind she may not see. But, I must be careful not to barge in too quickly with my thoughts, as I may misread what her real challenge is. I want to be an interested, empowering partner, not one who tries to dive right in and solve whatever I see as her “issues.” That’s what leads to the next question.
Question #3: What’s the real challenge here for you?
Bungay Stanier discusses the psychological power of the phrase, “for you”, as it personalizes the conversation and has the individual focus on what is within their control rather than what is outside their control.
My wife and I do our best to stay away from admiring the problem—taking the woe is me attitude of victimhood and hope. When I ask my wife what the biggest challenge is for her, it strengthens our connection because I am providing her psychological energy that communicates how I want to help her improve rather than glossing over the conversation with no solution.
Question #4: What do you want?
Blunt? Yes. But effective. Bungay Stanier describes this question as the root of adult-to-adult relationships. He cites Peter Block, author and community organizer, saying that this question allows you to “ask for what you want, knowing that the answer may be No.”
I know that if I want my marriage to be a healthy relationship, my wife and I both must be willing to candidly say yes and no to each other’s requests. When I ask my wife what she wants, she may tell me something explicit (Ex. “I want to create a chores chart so we share the responsibilities.”) but be expressing a deeper need (Ex. “I need to feel supported.”). It’s helpful for me to think about what the deeper need might be so I can better contextually understand why what she wants is so important.
Question #5: How can I help?
If I dive in with advice, I’m playing the rescuer role and assuming she cannot handle the situation herself. Maybe my wife just wanted to get something off her chest. I’ve pulled myself from a curious, listening role to one that is potentially trying to “help” when she really didn’t need me to help. By asking, “How can I help?”, I invite the possibility that she might tell me I cannot help or that she doesn’t need my help. The important part, though, is that I have offered help with sincerity.
Question #6: If you’re saying Yes to this, what are you saying No to?
My wife and I have finite amounts of energy we can share with each other and with the world. If we continue to say “Yes” to every opportunity that comes our way (which I am far too guilty of doing), we will run our relationship ragged. For both our sakes, we need to examine what we must stop doing when we take on another commitment.
For example, my wife volunteers at a wild animal rehabilitation center. When we discuss her plans for Spring volunteering and I ask her this question, she’ll need to examine what she is saying “No” to (Ex. A weeknight dinner with me; Time to relax after work one evening a week; Time to exercise one evening a week). I don’t ask her this to incite guilt—I ask her to invite balance.
Question #7: What was most useful for you?
I want my marriage to remain healthy. In order to do so, my wife and I need to give and receive honest feedback. “What am I providing to you as a partner that is useful?” “What am I providing (or not providing) that is not useful?” When I finish a conversation with “What was most useful for you?”, I get feedback about our interaction.
At the same time, this question helps summarize the entirety of our conversation by mentally reviewing what we discussed to locate something useful. Finally, and a little sneakily, it’s assuming I provided something useful to the conversation. (Of course, in an adult-to-adult relationship, she always has the right to say, “Nothing.”)
Let the experiment begin! When you’ve tried it, feel free to respond to this question in the comments: “What was most useful for you?”
Image credit: mooks262/flickr