It started with a request for a ride to a local shopping centre. My brother-in-law wanted to buy a cook book. Grabbing my car keys I asked him which cookbook he was looking for. He said he didn’t know. 

I thought that was odd so asked which chef had written it, he said he didn’t know that either, buckling in for the ride.

Backing out of the driveway I wondered how he’d know when he’d found the book he was looking for, he said he didn’t know that either. 

So what did he know?

We chatted on the car ride and he told me he’d heard an interview while on holiday on the radio with a chef who worked at a bistro in the city and who had a new cook book out. I think he thought the bookshop would have a NEW COOKBOOKS section or something and bam, it would be there but nope; they don’t and it wouldn’t be.

After quite some time in the store searching through the stacks of cookbooks, I pulled out my iPhone while quizzing him more about the interview he’d heard, he suggested it was on the the national radio station. I’d been listening to that station over the Christmas break too and much of their content was repeated from earlier in the year so their presenters can go on holiday. I knew that even if it was a “new release” in the interview, the interview itself might've been older. Searching the radio station’s website archives proved fruitless.

I needed more information so asked him why he’d been listening to the radio in the first place, he said he’d been listening to the cricket commentary. There are only a couple of radio stations that would broadcast sport so I looked their sites and repeated my searches. I found the interview, the name of the chef and the new cookbook on the talkback station.

I realised then that what I’d been doing with my brother-in-law was what I do every day in my job: trying to find out what the real problem was.

Photo by  Eli Francis  on  Unsplash

Photo by Eli Francis on Unsplash

Recently I read Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. It’s a fantastic book and well worth your time. She has a number of very practical pieces of advice but one in particular really stuck with me was about communicating what you need, clearly and exactly - which is hard to do well, right? She and her team had developed a phrase “Paint me a picture of what 'done’ looks like.” Getting a person to talk more about what they want, where they’re at, why they want it and what the outcome needs to look like, yields a lot of information even with reticent brothers-in-law.

I’m out of town with my colleagues Murdoch and Barrett facilitating a daring leadership workshop. I ask them to collect one role-play scenario from everyone participating in our two-day training while I’m meeting with the CEO. I want to use these scenarios the next day.

Later that evening, they slide a folder stuffed with handwritten scenarios under my hotel door. I wake up the next morning and panic. Now I have to sort through them and type them up. I’m frustrated with Murdoch and Barrett, and they have no idea why.
— Brené Brown

After Brené tracked down her colleagues, she painted a picture of what she had been thinking:

The next time, I ask for the same thing, but Murdoch replies with, “Sure. What does ‘done’ look like?”

I say, “Please type them up, and you and Barrett should pick three that are specific enough to be meaningful but general enough to apply across the group. It would be helpful if I could get them before 8 p.m. so I can review them tonight.”

“Here’s my plan. I want to collect scenarios from the participants today so we have new role-plays for the group tomorrow. I don’t want to reuse the ones we brought and used today. They’re really struggling with these hard conversations, and the more specific the scenarios are to their issues and culture, the more helpful the role-playing will be. My plan is to have you collect them and sort through them tonight, looking for ones that are specific but have broad appeal. I’d like y’all to type up three of them and make copies. Instead of breaking the group into pairs, I want to do triads with one person observing and supporting. So, if we have three role-plays for each group, they can each take a turn.”

Murdoch and Barrett think about it for a minute, then Barrett says, “One issue is that everyone here today is from operations. Tomorrow is the marketing team. Will that affect the relatability of the role-plays?”

Me: “Dammit. It totally changes what I’m thinking. Thank you.”
— Brené Brown from Dare to Lead

If I had asked my brother-in-law more questions sooner, like before we’d left the house for instance, I could have found out that he really didn’t have much information to go on about the book he wanted. We could have talked more and searched on the laptop (easier than pecking at my iPhone in the store) and driven to the one shop in town that had the book which ended up being closed by the time we got to the bottom of the story.

I’m not a particularly inquisitive person so even when it occurs to me that I need more information, it takes me time and I feel awkward about asking lots of questions over and over. This situation with my brother-in-law was another example to me of how I need to get over that awkwardness and really develop a better habit of asking lots more questions about everything, all the time.

Quite often during my day-job people come to me for help for stuff - like using the CMS, questions about SEO, formatting web pages, file formats, problems with forms, where the coffee beans are - and quite often they’ve already decided what the solution is that they need: "What I need is keywords - can you add more keywords to this page please? Whichever ones you think are best. Thanks."

Sure I can do that - can you tell me a little bit more about why you believe you need more keywords on this page? 

Because when I search in Google, my page doesn’t come up in the results. 

Why are you searching for your page in Google? 

Because I’ve got this Newsletter that I want to send out and I want people to be able to find my page easily after they read it. 

Do you insert any links directly to your page from your Newsletter? 


Why not? 

Um; you can do that?

So is stuffing more keywords into the page the solution? Hardly ever and especially in not this case, no.

I have found asking “What is the problem you’re trying to solve” sometimes gets people’s dander up. Maybe it sounds like I doubt their abilities or I’m frustrated or maybe it’s just my hoity toity tone of voice.

Using Brené’s request to “paint me a picture of what done looks like” would only work with those of us who have worked in Agile (we use the term “definition of done” often - muggles wouldn’t necessarily get the gist of that question). Maybe it’s as simple setting the context a little bit…

“Do you mind if I ask a couple of questions before getting started so I understand the whole picture?”

and then dig a little deeper to get a well rounded picture by listening to the whole story. I might discover that this person needs a quick lesson in how to make hyperlinks, and how search engines work, or how to support their newsletter through social media, or how Cook The Books in Ponsonby has the very cookbook they’re looking for.

Brené Brown’s latest book Dare to Lead is easy to find at all good book stores regardless of which radio station you listen to.

Question mark photo by BrianAJackson on Envato Elements

Webinar with GatherContent

Webinar with GatherContent

Kar Chan - recovering academic and delightful wordsmith

Kar Chan - recovering academic and delightful wordsmith