For Healthier Relationships, Ask Brave Questions

“Quality questions create a quality life. Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.”
Anthony Robbins, author and management consultant

Immediately after World War II, the Allied Armies gathered up many hungry, homeless children and placed them in large camps. There, the children were abundantly fed and cared for. However, at night the children did not sleep well. They seemed restless and afraid.

Then one psychologist hit on a solution. After the children were put to bed, each one of them received a slice of bread to hold. If they wanted more to eat, they were given more food. But this slice of bread was to be held and not eaten.

The slice of bread produced marvelous results. The children would go to sleep, subconsciously knowing and feeling they would have something to eat the next day. That assurance gave the children the assurance they needed so they could sleep calmly and peacefully.

In a similar sense, we all need something to hold on to. And few things are more important or more helpful than holding on to good, healthy, positive, productive relationships at work or at home.

The good news is … you can strengthen or manage almost any relationship … to make it better and better. The key to it all is the “excitement principle.”

As I discussed in last week’s “Tuesday Tip,” the research makes it clear … anything that increases the excitement level of two people … and is seen as a positive experience by both people … will strengthen the relationship between the two of them. In other words, whatever increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and adrenalin … in a good way … when you’re with another person or a team of people … will build up your relationship.

I gave you five ways to do that last week. However, the very best way to use the “excitement principle” to strengthen and manage your relationships is to increase the quality of your communication.

And most day-to-day talk in work and home relationships does not strengthen the relationship. It is merely “functional” talk … such as … “Customer Y needs that product shipped today … We’ve got until this afternoon to finish the project … The kids will be home at 5 … and … Let’s have pizza for dinner.” It gets a job done, but it does not increase the excitement level or bring the people any closer together.

So what kind of communication works? There are four kinds, each one more powerful than the previous one.

1. Talk about the past.

Talk to the other person about things you did together in years gone by. Talk about the places you’ve been together. And talk about the things you got excited about.

This works equally well for teams on the job or family members at home. When you talk about “the good old days” or “how things used to be,” you rekindle a certain camaraderie. You see it happening at the annual company picnic or the ten-year class reunion. It just plain feels good to remember all the good and bad things you went through … together.

As you do so, remember to follow English author Quentin Crisp’s advice. He said, “The formula for a successful relationship is simple: Treat all disasters as if they were trivialities, but never treat a triviality as if it were a disaster.” In other words, put things in the best possible perspective.

2. Laugh together.

Laughter releases endorphins that kill off pain. And these endorphins can lead to a sense of well-being and optimism.. You benefit personally.

But when you laugh together, you also strengthen and manage your relationship more effectively. The laughter can bridge the gap between total strangers and laughter can even reduce the tension in a tense situation … which is often needed … on and off the job.

So I’m always looking for humor I can share with my friends and family as well as my clients and audiences. For example, one of my colleagues, Scott Friedman, sent me the following.

* A chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion.
* Shotgun wedding: a case of wife or death.
* Reading while sunbathing makes you well-red.
* When two egotists meet…it’s an I for and I.
* What’s the definition of a will? It’s a dead giveaway!
* If you don’t pay your exorcist, you get repossessed.
* Once you have seen one shopping center, you’ve seen a mall.
* The man who fell into the upholstery machine is fully recovered.
* Local Area Network in Australia: The LAN down under.
* Those that get too big for their britches will be exposed in the end.

As fun and helpful as that can be, it’s even more effective if you …

3. Engage in open, honest self-disclosure.

Reveal some things about yourself that the other person would not know otherwise … things that involve a bit of risk. It kicks the “excitement factor” into play. After all, there is no intimacy without transparency. And there is no teamwork without self-disclosure.

And one of the best places for self-disclosure to take place is in the performance appraisal process. Unfortunately, many organizations have a difficult time getting their managers to give their employees timely, helpful performance appraisals … because the appraisals provoke too much anxiety.

But that’s crazy. If a manager has been doing his/her job … self-disclosing and sharing information with the employees on a regular basis … there shouldn’t be any anxiety in giving performance appraisals. All the appraisal does is summarize all the information the manager has already given the employee about his/her performance.

The anxiety comes into play when the manager stores up information for long periods of time. Again, that’s crazy. In so doing, he/she takes away the employee’s chances of improving his/her performance. And what right does any manager have to deny his/her employees the opportunity to do the best possible job? A manager has to self-disclose and give complete and honest feedback.

As a rule of thumb, if you’re a supervisor or manager, give your subordinates feedback every month that tells them how they’re doing. Better yet, do it every week. And when you have that brief discussion, ask your subordinates for some feedback. Ask them if there is anything you could be doing more effectively. Ask them if there is anything you could be doing to help them with their jobs. You will be managing the relationship in way that allows for more back-and-forth self-disclosure.

Of course, there is this myth that feedback should only flow downward in an organization. Actually, the best … and maybe the most important … feedback flows upward. The Nixon White House needed to learn that. Nixon created an environment where his subordinates only told him what he wanted to hear. They did not give him any opinions that were contrary to the views he already held. Of course, it created insanity.

And there is a measure of insanity in any organization when the upper-level bosses are deprived of feedback. They lose touch with reality and become very much like the Emperor and his new clothes. No one told him the truth; so he walked around naked.

In my speaking and consulting practice, I find that the worst managed companies are those where it is common knowledge that it is NOT okay to go into the offices of a senior executive and give him/her absolutely honest feedback. Doing so might result in the loss of the employee’s job or at least damage his career.

I tell executives that it is YOUR job to create an environment of trust that ripples throughout every level of the organization. It is YOUR job to create an environment where subordinates feel safe giving you open, honest feedback.

The fact is … everyone benefits when leaders, managers, and subordinates are open, honest, and self-disclosing. In fact, I’ve noticed that is the norm in the best organizations.

And how do you know if you have that kind of an environment going on at work? Simple. On a piece of paper, write down the name of your superior. List all the things he or she does well and all the areas where improvement is needed. Then imagine yourself bringing that paper to your superior. If you feel any anxiety about that, it’s because there are some things on your paper you haven’t told your superior.

In essence, to strengthen and manage your relationships, increase your self-disclosure.

And the VERY BEST way to do that is …

4. Ask and answer brave questions.

It’s a skill that is lacking in so many relationships. Lots of people don’t know how to connect on a deeper level. So they talk about the things they have to do, the people they know, or relatively unimportant topics such as the weather, the football game, and what’s for dinner.

But the strongest teams and best relationships always go beyond superficial conversation. They ask what I call “Brave Questions” … questions that are a bit more personal … and a bit more risky. They seek to understand the other person on a much deeper level. And when they’re done right, you infuse your relationships with a surge of energy. You go beyond relationship management to relationship building.

Deb Olswold testified to that. She wrote to tell me this technique got her a better job. In her words, Deb said, “I have always been a very shy person, always in the background of the workplace, the family, and my personal life. Then I was asked to interview for a higher ranking position, so I rushed out to get a copy of your book, ‘Brave Questions.’ I read the book, wrote a few of the questions on a small piece of paper, and went to the interview. Instead of just passively sitting back and letting them take the entire lead, I asked them such things as, ‘Where do they want to be in two years? What kind of person are they looking for? And what do they expect from me?'”

“Because of your book, I went through the entire interview with a sense of confidence. An hour after the interview, they called to offer me the position. I accepted the position and have thanked you in my daily prayers. I know that your ‘Brave Questions’ helped me get the best job I have ever had. The 400 questions in the book are fantastic. I can finally ask questions with confidence, and I can move into a meeting with ease. The old ‘shy’ secretary is fading away as my new self-esteem emerges.”

As Deb so clearly indicates, there’s power in asking and answering “Brave Questions.” It can improve your effectiveness on the job. But “Brave Questions” are equally effective at home.

Kelly Daufeldt told me about that. She wrote me, saying, “My husband and I recently heard you speak at the Wisdom Financial Seminar. As we drove home, we began asking each other Brave Questions, and we’ve continued the practice. It’s been great!! We had a strong marriage but now it’s better than ever!”

Kelly continued, “Then I decided to try this technique on our three small children and their friends. We had a couple of the neighborhood kids over for lunch, and just for the fun of it I brought out your ‘Brave Questions’ book while they were eating and asked them a few questions. The response was phenomenal!! They didn’t want the lunch to end. I had so much fun laughing and learning about the littlest kids in our neighborhood … not to mention that your book helped me earn the ‘Coolest Mom’ award with all the kids! Thanks so much again!!!”

You get the point. To build strong relationships, to manage all your relationships for the better, you’ve got to get beyond the fluff and the superficial. You’ve got to ask and answer brave questions. You’ve got to get to the real meat … and you will be blessed with teams that work and relationships that work.

Action:  Decide this week to engage at least two people in a deeper conversation where you ask each one of them at least two Brave Questions. And then listen closely to their answers.