What did YOU do?

It started to rain. I knew a book-store close by so headed for it to wait for the shower to pass. I visit this store fairly often and knew the shelves I wanted. On one side philosophy and psychology, and on the other business books.

One book caught my eye. The name of the book had been on my mind recently, and I had seen a short video interview with the author.

I picked the book up and opened on a random chapter.

I started to read.

I kept reading.

I bought the book.

When you ask a question how much thought do you give to the way you ask it?

Questions are powerful. The type of question you ask influences the type of answer you get.

“Questions are places in your mind where answers fit,” he said. “If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off.”

Clayton Christensen quote from A Conversation with Innovation Guru Clayton Christensen by Jason Fried for INC.com

I am going to suggest two types of questions to think about.

The first and most common is a passive question. For example, “Why was the deadline missed?”

The second is an active question. For example, “Why did you miss the deadline?”.

There is a difference in the way these two questions are phrased. Both questions ask for the same information. Yet the answer will be different.

A passive question elicits a passive answer. In a passive sentence, the subject is being acted upon. Asked in this way, a passive question invites the respondent to give an external answer. An answer in which they are not responsible

When you ask a passive question, you give the respondent an out. You give them a chance to use another factor in their answer.

In contrast an active question elicits an active answer. In an active sentence, the subject does the action. In this way, an active question invites the respondent to become the subject. The respondent has to say what they did. An active question makes it difficult for them to shirk responsibility.


Back to the example questions.

The first question only asks why the deadline was missed. The person answering could give any number of reasons. The deadline was too tight. The scope was too broad. Someone didn’t make a decision. The testers didn’t finish testing on time …

The second question asks why YOU missed the deadline. I can’t use something else as an excuse. I have to visit what I did. What was my role in the missed deadline. It might not be my fault (fault is a different thing). I could give the following responses. I didn’t speak up that the deadline was too tight during the planning phase. I allowed the scope to creep. I did not chase Bob for a decision. I emailed Bob and left it at that. I didn’t call them. I didn’t allow the testers enough time to test.

I acknowledge this is a harsh example. I hope I never get asked that question in person by a manager or colleague. But I could answer it in private.

One is not better than the other. Both have their place. You need to mix them up. And you need to think about what you response you want.

“Active questions are the alternative to passive questions. There is a huge difference between “Do you have clear goals?” and “Did you do your best to set clear goals for yourself?” The former is trying to determine the employee’s state of mind; the latter challenges the employee to describe or defend a course of action.”

From Marshall Goldsmith in 6 Questions that Will Set You Up to Be Super Successful

The problem is passive questions tend to dominate. They are the most common. In fact it is difficult to find active questions in a work environment. By asking passive question we collectively allow ourselves to disassociate our own personal responsibility for an action.

We do not ask ourselves what our role is.

I like active questions. I am big on responsibility. I feel it when I shouldn’t.

An active question gets at our role. At how we are responsible. At how hard we are working at the outcome or change we want.

Ask more active questions.

Start with yourself. As yourself each day “Did I do my best to …”

And the book. The book is Triggers and the author is Marshall Goldsmith. Chapter 9 is called ‘The Power of Active Questions’. It’s a great read. In particular about personal behaviour change. And it talks about the role your environment plays in your behaviour. If you don’t want to argue with a five year old about the chocolate .. Don’t show them a chocolate.