Six powerful questions to build better relationships

April 2, 2021
Kimberley McAdams, PCC

In a highly transactional world, it can often seem like we don’t have enough time to keep up with our commitments, let alone time for building relationships.

The impact of remote connection

More than ever, with many of our connections now being made through some online meeting tool, people are missing the ‘connect-at-the-water-cooler’ collisions that just don’t happen as much anymore. In one way, we’re more connected than ever (think Teams, Slack, Zoom, Google Meet, and so many more), yet in another way, it can feel disconnecting in that we don’t really know the people around us. And the impact of that isn’t just showing up in our productivity, it's also adding to feelings of overwhelmingness, burnout, isolation, etc. It can affect everything from how we lead, to how present we are with our families.

The difference conscious communication can make

Communication is something that is critically important to us at The Ally Co. because it’s the way we operationalize everything. From deeper, more meaningful connections, to successfully delivering on that valuable initiative, communicating (and therefore the quality of our relationships) is a direct driver of our success.

So what’s the answer to moving beyond a surface level, transactional type of connection?

For us, it’s asking simple, yet powerful questions that move the needle from transactional, closer to transformational.

Powerful questions

Before we share six powerful questions we love and use oftent, let's cover two very important characteristics that make powerful questions...well, powerful.

Six powerful questions that are useful in 1:1 conversations with people you have a relationship with (team members, kids, partners, client, etc.):

1. What else?

Great to use in interviews, in a coaching conversation, and with your significant other when they’re sharing about their day. By asking what else, we keep the focus on the individual and signal that we’re interested in really listening and understanding their point of view. Often when we’re listening, we are covertly waiting for them to share something that we can relate to, triggering our turn to speak, which often has the opposite impact than we want. Asking “What Else?” holds the focus of the conversation on them, and creates the space for them to go into greater detail. For the verbal processors out there, this is a gift!

2. Tell me more…

The cousin to “What Else?” is “Tell me more.” These words hold the focus on one particular idea or concept the other person has already shared. It could be “tell me more about what made today really difficult?” or “tell me more about your idea to transform our product development process”. “Tell me more” opens the conversation and a window into the other person’s thinking, and what’s important to them. What people share and what’s important to them points towards values. Very few people can accurately articulate their values and how they’re expressed, however, if you listen for what comes up when we ask “tell me more”, you’ll discover what is important or meaningful.

3. If time/education/experience/finances/other wasn’t an issue, what would you do?

As human beings, we are taught to think ‘realistically’ (restricting) which of course is important, until it gets in the way of brainstorming, innovation, and getting out of our comfort zones. We think we can’t go back to school because of the cost or planning that dream vacation with the family doesn’t make sense because we’re in the middle of a pandemic. There is likely some truth here, and we also put obstacles in our way and limit creativity because we think what we really want isn’t realistic. This is a great question to ask direct reports, colleagues, or others in your life when they seem stuck.

4. What are you tolerating?

A great question to ask when someone is stuck. For example, asking direct reports to activate their agency, the ability to see that they’re capable of changing a situation. Toleration leads to frustration, which leads to resignation, which leads to victimhood. We take the perspective that everyone is a leader, leaders take responsibility for themselves and their world. If there’s something that they’re tolerating, they know that ultimately they are 'response-able’ to change it. Far too often we let things slide, and thereby give all of our power away. If we’re feeling helpless and complaining to others about a person/situation/experience, there’s a good chance we feel powerless. Notice someone who has the same complaint over and over? Perhaps it’s even you. By asking and getting clear on what we’re tolerating puts the power back in our hands to make a change.

Other “tolerating” questions:

5. What is important to you about that?

The most important part of this sentence is the words “to you'“. If we change the question and simply say, what’s important about that, we can keep the focus on the issue. By adding the words “to you”, we’re changing the focus of the question. Often, our first action when people share a challenge with us is to jump into solution-ing. They’ll say, “I’m struggling to complete all my tasks for the day” or “I’m having a hard time separating work from family now that I’m working from home and don’t have a proper office.” By asking the question “what’s important to you about completing all your tasks in the day?”, it might seem obvious. Yet we get to uncover some important aspects about how they’re thinking or feeling.

Other “Important” questions:

6. What would success look like?

Whenever we start a new initiative, a new relationship, even a 1:1 conversation, we ask the question of what would success would look like. This allows us to begin with the end in mind and get incredibly clear on what the expectations are of the other party(ies) to ensure we can meet those expectations. In turn, we may have expectations of our own. For example, success to the other party for a 1:1 meeting might look like a solution to their current challenge and some clear action steps to move forward. For the coach in this session, success might look like the other individual coming up with their own solution, actions steps, and plan for accountability. This question also applies to personal relationships. Say you and your significant other are planning a holiday, asking what a successful trip would look like gets to the core of the kind of trip you’re both looking for. By asking the question and getting curious, we open the door to co-design what success looks like and clear any assumptions or undercover expectations that could sabotage or lead to misunderstandings or disappointments in the future.

Other examples of “Success” questions:

Your turn! Try one or more of the questions above in a 1:1 conversation with a colleague or with someone in your life outside of work and get curious as to how the relationship changes.

Questions? Thoughts? Feedback? Whatever it is, we would love to hear from you!