3 Disarmingly Simple Questions That Open Up Healthy Communication

Speaking on a cruise ship one time, leading a marriage enrichment seminar, I made the following statement: “Communication is the fuel that keeps the fire in your relationship burning. Without it, your relationship goes cold.”

My question for you is simple. Is that the truth or is that a myth?

Well of course it’s the truth. Tons of research backs that up.

However, it’s not the quantity of the communication in your personal and professional relationships that makes the difference. It’s the quality of the communication that matters.

That’s why I say good communication is like water to a plant; it helps relationships blossom and grow. But bad communication is like a slow-acting poison that eventually kills whomever it touches.

So how can you engage in good communication … especially when you have to give somebody else some feedback? After all, it’s never easy to observe, assess, and judge someone’s behavior and then coach them to a better way.

Fortunately, there is an easy and effective three-question communication method I learned from three teachers, Mamie Porter, Sid Simon, and Steve Saffron that works wonders. I’ve used it for years and recommend you follow this approach as well … with your spouse, partner, kids, employees, or anyone else when you need to give feedback to.

Before I give you the three questions, let me give you some background. It all started with Mamie, who spent her professional career sitting in on instructors’ classes and helping them improve the quality of their teaching. Mamie knew that when she sat in the back of an instructor’s class, her presence made them highly self-conscious.

She started the process by letting each instructor know exactly what they could expect. She would not be acting like a district attorney and would not be passing judgment. Instead, she would simply facilitate a discussion where the instructor could share his or her own reflections and self-evaluation. With a gentle hand on their shoulder, she explained that after they finished teaching, she would pose three simple questions.

Smart. I hope you picked up the lesson here. Before you give any feedback to anyone, it helps to let the other person know what your intentions are and how the discussion will go.

Once you’ve set the stage, ask these three questions.

► 1. What did you like about what you did?

Over the years, Mamie had learned that most people are more likely to criticize than praise themselves. Perhaps you’ve learned that as well. It’s all too easy for your critical self-talk to kick in. Time and again you find yourself thinking, “Why did I say that? What was I thinking? Am I ever going to get it right?”

Mamie steered people away from that by asking them to look at what they liked about their teaching. It was a great starting point with two benefits. It quieted the instructor’s inner critic, at least temporarily, and it started the process of Appreciative Inquiry. It redirected the instructor’s attention from thinking about what was wrong to what was working.

By helping others concentrate on what was working, you help the other person build on their strengths. And most of the research indicates you’ll have a better chance of bringing about change in yourself and others if you focus more on using your strengths to the fullest instead of trying to kill off your weaknesses.

F.Y.I. The entire second day of my Journey-to-the-Extraordinary program is all about communicating effectively with others. And my last public offering of the program will be Winter/Spring 2022. Send me an email if you want me to save you a seat.

You can expect results like Michael Van Horn, a Senior Graphic Designer at Boeing, got. He says, “Dr. Z’s JOURNEY gave me a new view of life, success, and relationships. And the valuable skills I learned dramatically increased my proficiency and communication skills. This experience literally transformed my life on and off the job. Extremely useful, very revealing and absolutely enlightening!”

Going back to Mamie’s three questions for effective communication and feedback …

► 2. If you got a second chance, what would you do differently?

Notice the preface to the question … “if you got a second chance.” It’s very important because it shifts the focus from a post-mortem analysis of someone’s behavior to a future-oriented goal. By asking the question this way, Mamie circumvented reflection that would only lead to regret and primed the pump for new ways of thinking and behaving. It’s brilliant.

Of course, when you’re observing a coworker, an employee, a friend or family member, you already have some thoughts as to what the other person could (and perhaps should) do differently. And you could blurt out your feedback with or without the other person even asking for it. Your chances of success in those instances are iffy at best. The other person is likely to get defensive or try to prove you wrong.

But when you ask the other person what they would do differently if they had a second chance, they won’t argue with their own data. If they say it, they own it.

When Mamie asked the first two questions, the instructors saw areas of promise, noted places where they could hone and polish, and came away feeling excited and energized by their creative revisions. I think you’ll get the same reaction when you use these questions.

Mamie then saved her best question for last.

► 3. Where could you use a hand?

It’s simple, direct, and deceptively profound. And it goes beyond all the self-assessment tools out there that basically say “where you’re strong, where you’re weak, what you need to do about it, and good luck.”

Don’t misunderstand me. I use assessment tools all the time with my coaching clients, and they love the insights they get. But without a coach to guide them through the next steps, to ask the tough questions, and hold them accountable, most people don’t do anything with the information they get from the assessments they’ve taken.

In a similar sense, Mamie’s first two questions are self-assessments. But the third question is a game changer. “Where could you use a hand?” Suddenly any improvement the other person makes isn’t all up to them. Someone else is there with them, ready and able to help.

The question is disarmingly simple and non-threatening. It frees the other person from feeling all alone with their problem and invites collaboration. And most people would welcome such an invitation.

Final Thought: A healthy relationship is based on communication, not on assumptions. These three questions open up an amazing amount of communication.