The Focus Question: How to Identify the Real Problem

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Coaching Habit" by Michael Bungay Stanier. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the focus question that all coaches, managers, and leaders should ask? How can they help their team get to the heart of the issue?

When you’re coaching, you want to start by asking fairly open-ended questions to get the conversation flowing. However, there comes a time when you need to hone in and identify the heart of the matter. That’s when it’s time to ask the focus question.

Continue reading to learn the focus question that all coaches should ask.

The Focus Question: “What’s the Central Challenge for You?”

As a manager, you’re trained to be the chief troubleshooter in a fast-paced environment. When someone comes to you with a problem, you might come charging in to put out a fire without stopping to figure out what caused it. This then leads to three problems: 

  1. You might have to deal with the same fire over and over again, or have other flames crop up from the same source.
  2. You prevent your direct reports from learning how to deal with the fire themselves. 
  3. You’re so busy putting out fires, you’re not able to take care of your other responsibilities. This creates a bottleneck and causes work to come to a halt.

The focus question—“What’s the central challenge for you?”allows you to weed through several issues to find and solve the real issue at hand. 

Why This Question Is a Good Coaching Habit

When a direct report comes to you with an issue or several issues, stopping to ask a question forces you to slow down and get to the heart of the matter. The phrasing of this question is important to getting useful information: Asking, “What’s the challenge?” invites vague, abstract answers that may not address the source of the problem. Asking, “What’s the real challenge here?” widens the scope too much—the team member ends up overthinking, trying to see the issue from all sides to determine the real challenge. 

One study shows that when you add “you” to a complicated question, problem-solving happens more quickly and accurately. Therefore, you should phrase the focus question as, “What’s the central challenge for you?” This not only conveys that you want to know precisely what the team member is grappling with personally, but it also helps the person add shape or terminology to their struggles. 

How to Make It a Habit

Since you’re used to the bad habit of fixing things yourself, stopping to ask questions might feel like inaction. However, any insight you uncover by asking the focus question will be much more valuable than the wrong solution to the wrong problem. 

You don’t have to stop giving advice altogether—in fact, it’s bound to get annoying if you answer every question with another question. You just have to learn to differentiate between a problem that needs your immediate attention and problem-solving prowess and one that is a golden coaching opportunity. 

Three common situations are great coaching opportunities, but often trigger “fixing mode” if you’re not careful: 

Trigger 1: The Team Member’s Dealing With Many Issues 

Some people don’t hold back when you ask them “What’s on your mind?” 

  • For example, the supplier is late giving estimates, the internet connection has been slow, the art director is waiting for creativity to strike, her landlord has been giving her grief, and so on. 

Your brain, oriented towards problem-solving, will go into overdrive, trying to figure out which issue to tackle first. Stop yourself from going into fix-it mode—take a deep breath, and ask, “If you had to choose only one of these issues, which would you say is the central challenge for you?”

Trigger 2: The Conversation Turns to Gossip

When the other person complains about another team member, customer, or client, the issue goes into the realm of something neither of you can control. 

Stop yourself from getting into the gossip. You can only coach the person in front of you, so switch the focus from the person you’re talking about toward the person you’re talking to. 

  • For example, you can ask the focus question as, “I think I understand what’s going on with Barbara. What’s the central challenge for you in this situation?” 

Trigger 3: The Issues Are Too Vague 

Sometimes, it seems like the other person might not know the exact problem himself, so he talks about abstract big-picture stuff, drifting to other things that seem vaguely related to the issue at hand—such as a recent article he read, societal issues, or what social media has been saying.

Stop yourself from latching onto a random issue to discuss. If you’re left feeling unsure of the most productive direction to take the conversation, say, “I can see that this issue comes with a lot of great challenges. What’s the central challenge for you?”

The Focus Question: How to Identify the Real Problem

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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