Do you know the feeling of having one conversation after the next with difficult team members—and nothing happens? These situations call for the use of systemic questions.
One of the most important communication tools that trainers and coaches use is to ask systemic questions. As a manager, you can also use them to help your team members develop their own solutions.
Systemic questions follow set patterns. They help your counterpart break out of thinking patterns and develop new perspectives. Systemic questions help uncover “the problem behind a problem,” developing new ideas and identifying solutions. They allow you to lead your team members more like a coach, rather than resorting to command and control.
Almost all systemic questions require that both parties trust each other and engage in the conversation. If you find that your conversation partner rejects a thought experiment or hypothetical question, you should accept that and not probe further.
If that happens, you may want to look at my on-demand course about having difficult conversations at work: conflict resolutions.
Back to systemic questions.
You can find entire books on systemic questions and their subsets. Some are so complicated that only professionals can make sense of them. The following questions, however, are well suited for all leaders and typical leadership situations.
Use these smart questions to spark new ideas, bring movement to conflicts, and get people to change their behavior.
1. Solution-oriented questions
Solution-focused questions direct your focus to resources that your counterpart may be overdrawing from. These questions are helpful when a discussion keeps revolving around obstacles and why something can’t go. Solution-focused questions can also help team members move out of a victim role and into action.
- What opportunities should we definitely take advantage of?
- What changes can we see that we are on the right track?
- Who do we need to make the project a success?
- What steps do we need to take to get where we want to go?
- What resources do you see that I may have overlooked?
2. Scaling questions
These questions help you rate soft factors such as feelings, assessments, characteristics, and statuses on a sliding scale. For example, “On a scale of 0 to 10, how satisfied are you with your performance?” Scaling questions are great for comparing situations. For example, “Would you have rated your performance differently a year ago?”
Scaling questions are also beneficial for setting a goal with team members that is both ambitious and realistic—an important motivator. Ask, “On a scale of 1-10, how likely are you to achieve the goal?” If people give a score below 7, suggest adjusting the goal and making it slightly smaller.
3. Paradoxical questions
With paradoxical questions, you turn a question around and reverse it. They exaggerate a situation and thus cause perplexity and irritation. This brings movement into deadlocked situations, like when two team members are bogged down in a conflict and remain in mutual reproach. Paradoxical questions are also suitable for developing creative ideas.
- How could you make the project fail?
- What would your colleague have to do to make you even angrier?
- What definitely could not work?
- How could the process be made even worse?
- What would you have to do to ensure that you suffer burnout?
4. Circular questions
We often find it difficult to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and look at the world through their lens. With circular questions, you can specifically stimulate such a change in perspective. This can be very helpful in conflicts, for example, or when colleagues can’t understand why a mistake they made had a big impact on others.
While instructions usually cause defiance, circular questions can make people recognize harmful behavior for the team and voluntarily change.
- What does the situation look like from colleague Jim Johnson’s perspective?
- How do you think a customer feels when shown a presentation with multiple spelling errors?
- What would you do if you were in my position?
5. Hypothetical questions
Hypothetical questions aim toward the future. They invite your partner to a thought experiment and allow them to mentally play through new perspectives and possible solutions. This will enable you to explore new approaches and creative ideas together.
These questions can help if the conversation comes to a standstill and your colleague cannot see any possible solutions. Looking into the future often provides the decisive impetus to free yourself from barriers and stuck patterns (“This can’t work anyway because….”).
- How would you approach the challenge if money were not an issue at all?
- Suppose you didn’t know the department or your colleagues at all. How would you decide?
- What would you do if you could make the decision all by yourself?
- What other ideas would come to mind if there was no deadline pressure?
- What would your week look like if you suddenly stopped getting upset with your colleague?
6. Miracle questions
Miracle questions are like hypothetical questions—they take people to the extreme, so to speak. Miracle questions should free your partner from all limitations of their own thinking. They encourage you to think beyond the known horizon and can help you to find a way in seemingly hopeless situations.
- What if the problem were suddenly solved overnight?
- Suppose you wake up tomorrow morning, and a fairy godmother makes sure that you have reached your goal. What would change?
- What would your situation look like in a perfect world?
Systemic questions give rise to spark new ideas, bring movement to conflicts, and help people change behaviors that aren’t beneficial. Managers can use these smart questions to help employees find solutions to their issues, creating an efficient and motivated team.