I teach coaches to ask great questions of their student athletes. It allows the players to grow into world-class athletes and mature adults. The first lesson is that not all questions are created equal. The meaning of questions can be found in 3 places: in the words, the intent of the question, and tone. Imagine with me – your athlete (or employee) comes off the field, court, or out of a meeting having just made a mistake. There is a big difference between, “Did you see what you just did?” And “what did you notice?”
It’s not much of a stretch to hear disappointment – maybe anger – in the first question. Depending on the coach’s tone, it could feel pretty threatening. Now, on top of dealing with his mistake, the player now feels attacked by the coach – the person who is supposed to be on his side. It creates what is called in emotional intelligence, an “amygdala hijack.” That’s when a question is perceived as an attack and the body is triggered in to a full ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response.
When that happens, the logic part of the brain gives way to the brain’s emotional control center. Thinking is impaired. What that means is that at the very time you want a kid to listen to you and remember what they’ve been taught, they are paralyzed by stress. My guess is the “did you see what you just did?” question is intended to help and in fact, quite often has the opposite affect.
Let’s replace the stress-inducing question with a different one – “What did you notice?” If you read it out loud, you’ll feel its simplicity and power. It is open-ended, short enough that there aren’t any embedded assumptions, and it’s curious. Asking, “what do you notice” is like standing shoulder to shoulder with your athlete to look at their performance and help them discover what there is to learn. No amygdala hijack, no accusations, just the opportunity for them to uncover what was going on so you can get on with the job of teaching and developing them.