Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Two Questions

My recent discussions with some friends has encouraged me to begin a new series of writing. The series is about personal effectiveness, successful communication, efficient influencing, and a smattering of other items. It's really a polish on many posts that I've been working on for weeks and months now. Since I've got a few ready to go, I've decided to just start the series and that should spur me to keep the posts coming.

Quite some time ago in a management training class the instructor asked the class if we'd like to know two questions which could change our lives. Since then, I have indeed used those questions consistently. They have undoubtedly been among the most useful questions I've ever asked. Actually, "Is it plugged in? Is it turned on?" would be the most useful questions I've ever learned to ask, but we'll discuss those another time. The questions this particular instructor asked were: "What do you want?", and "How will you know when you've got it?"

People who have worked for me have learned a variation on that theme over the years. With everyone I have trained they are taught to ask three questions to ensure a path to success.
  • What are we trying to accomplish?
  • What are steps that will get us there?
  • How will we know we were successful?
Obviously, these are very business-centric versions of the same core principles. In everyday life you might not want to be so deliberate, controlling, and meticulous. Then again, if you have things to accomplish in your life, you may very well want to operate at that level.

What do you want?
This question takes advantage of the fact that humans psychology is fundamentally ‘goal-seeking'. In other words, we operate most effectively when we have a goal or objective. In any specific situation you are faced with, you can invariable begin to focus your thinking by simply asking yourself this question and paying close attention to your answer. You will be surprised at how much the way you answer will reveal about how you think.

A little example of what I'm talking about is the phrase "You Can't Do a Don't".

When you think about your answer, consider if you stated it in the positive or the negative. Examples of the positive would be things such as "to get fit & healthy", "to double your income", "to start a new business", etc. Examples of the negative would be "to quit smoking", "to lose weight", "to stop spending so much", and so forth.

The key to why this is important lies in the fact that negative statements aren't processed psychologically in the same way they are linguistically. For example, if I told you not to think about orange eskimos, you would find it hard to comply. Simply put, you'll organize your actions based on what your thoughts focus on, so if your goal is stated in the negative, you're making it more difficult for yourself. Ensure that you state your goals positively, and it will make it easier for your habits and actions to follow through.

How will you know when you've got it?
When interviewing candidates to mentor and often in casual contact I come across people who will state that their goal is to become rich. When pressed about how they'll know when they are rich, the typical answer involves having more money. My response is to give them a quarter and say "Well done. You're now rich."

More money is of course not specific enough. The next exercise with such a person would be to go into the detail of what they would see, hear, feel, and do when they are rich. A sensory exercise can provide such a rich representation of what success looks like for any particular goal. It is a great way to focus and frame your efforts for the future.

We've discussed how you asking yourselves these questions can be important. How do you apply this to the rest of your life? By asking others those same questions, of course! The trick is that when you ask someone "What do you want?" it's really important to pay attention while you are asking the question. Especially during when they are preparing to give an answer. People will run all sorts of unconscious strategies while searching for the answer to a question. If you are watchful you can discover:
  • how they represent a successful outcome to themselves
  • how they stop themselves from getting what they want
  • how they want several things that are in conflict with each other, etc.
This peripheral information is often not available to the person at a conscious level, so it is imperative that you watch and listen for the eye movements, hand gestures, head movements, and language patterns. As you become skilled, you will realize that most of the time the context and periphery of the response contains more information than the words. I'll discuss other techniques along this line in subsequent posts.

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