Need to Focus? Asking This Question Will Help

By Marshall Goldsmith

Recently ranked by Thinkers50 as one of the top 8 coaches in the world, Michael Bungay Stanier has written two books The Coaching Habit and Do More Great Work, which have sold close to 600,000 copies. A member of our 100 Coaches and senior partner of Box of Crayons, Michael knows a thing or two about coaching and he often talks about the importance questions.

In this interview, Michael describes a great question that we can ask others to prioritize and focus, which is very helpful in today’s world when we are bombarded with so much information.

Marshall: Michael, one of the things you talk about in your book is the “focus question.” Focus is critical because today we are bombarded with information. So, what is the “focus question”?

Michael: Here’s the starting premise. In most organizations, people are working really hard coming up with good ideas, pouring time and effort and resource into solving the wrong problem because they get seduced into thinking that the first thing that shows up is the real challenge, and it almost never is. It’s just the first challenge.

One of the most effective things you can do as a manager, as a leader, as an individual contributor who’s being more coach-like, is slow down the rush to action and advice giving. Stay curious a little bit longer, and the focus question is one of the most powerful ways to doing that.

Let me break it down for you. The focus question is “What’s the real challenge here for you?” It’s the way this is said that really matters. You could ask somebody, “Hey, so what’s the challenge here?” That’s a pretty good question. It will move the conversation, get them talking and thinking a little bit, but you’re going to get almost an executive summary of whatever the problem is.

As soon as you add one word, it becomes a better question. What’s the “real” challenge here? Now you’re saying to them, look, “I know there’s more than one thing going on here. What’s the real challenge here?”

You’re going to make them think. That’s one of my philosophies about coaching, which is a bit paradoxical. It’s to be lazy. Stop working so hard to fix their problem for them. Make them do the work because that’s where they make the connections, the a-ha, the confidence and the competence.

So when you say, “What’s the real challenge here?” It’s a better question, but when you add two more words and it becomes a really great question. What’s the real challenge here “for you”? When you add “for you,” the spotlight swings from the problem to the person solving the problem, and not only does the problem get fixed, but the person who’s fixing it also learns and grows.

If I said to somebody, “What’s the challenge here?” And they say, “It’s Luke, our guy behind the camera. He has no fashion sense at all. I’m really concerned about that. If I say, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” Suddenly the topic of conversation is not about Luke, it’s about me dealing with Luke, and that’s where the insight is. That’s where the wealth is. That’s where the a-ha moment comes.

Marshall: So, that’s the focus question. What’s the real challenge here for you? Thank you!