My favorite question

“Can we return to a constructive discussion, please”? – Often, that is easier said than done. However, there is one question that usually does the trick:

Asking the right question is the key to coming to a meaningful answer.

What does this mean to us?

Make the question explicit in a suitable setting and allow for some open-ended discussion and bring the focus of the discussion gently back to the above question as often as needed. The choice of words matters. If you proceed like this, the discussion will focus precisely on the question you repeat, and “what do you think” or “what should we do” will not lead to converging answers.

A few thought experiments.

“Amazon bought Whole Foods”

The water coolers would be buzzing with fragments like “What an idiot” … “What a genius” … like so:

What does this mean to us?

Depending on who “us” is, it could be an inspiration, it could be a threat, it could be an opportunity or all kinds of things. Either way, suddenly, the conversation is turning constructive.

By the way, you may end up with the conclusion: “it’s no big deal for us”. And finding consensus on that is beneficial, too, because all the other discussions fade.

“Our board has decided to revitalize legacy product X”

Especially among engineers, this may cause rage and frustration.

Through the question “What does this mean to us?“, you can turn this energy into raw material for a project plan. You may find answers like:

  • We have to upgrade (safety procedures, IPv6, HTTP/2 …)
  • We need resources to re-construct lost knowledge
  • There’s new production infrastructure needed

Et cetera, et cetera.

But the nice thing about these points is: they are not mutually exclusive. This question leads naturally to raw material for an action plan, where all of the above have to be considered. At the same time, we sidestep the “you’re wrong, I’m right” type of discussion even before it started.

“Team Member X has messed up …”

This usually leads to a Karpman drama triangle unfolding.

Ask “What does this mean to us?” to avoid the blame game, and aim to extract from the discussion:

  • We need to clean up the immediate consequences by doing X
  • We need better safeguards, like Y, to prevent this from happening again

As you can see from all of the above, this question really is like a swiss army knife, especially if you are willing to invest some time into an open-ended discussion.

Bonus question: When you next look at a tweet or a Facebook entry, ask yourself: What does this mean to me? This may turn into a huge time saver 🙂

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