How many times do you receive a request from a manager similar to the following: 

“We are experiencing an increase in preventable accidents and incidents. Safety is a primary goal for our manufacturing facilities. I’d like you to run a refresher course on safety for operators and supervisors.” 

“I have two teams that are in continual conflict. I would like some type of team-building experience for them. What do you suggest?” 

In each instance the manager, who is your client, is coming with a solution in mind. But if the safety training did not work the first time, why is a refresher program going to have any better results? And how do we know that team building will resolve team conflict? The challenge is to get the requesting manager to put a pause on implementing any solution before determining the root causes for the problem. How do you do this without the client thinking you aren’t supportive? The goal for a performance consultant in these scenarios is to engage the client in a reframing discussion. 

What’s a Reframing Discussion? 

In a reframing discussion, the performance consultant steers the conversation away from a focus on the requested solution toward a discussion of the business and performance results the client wants to achieve. Consider the team-building request noted above. Although the client has identified a team-building solution, it is highly probable that the client seeks results that go beyond delivery of this solution. Resolving team conflict would be one possible result; enhancing work efficiency could be another. In a reframing discussion, you do not focus on the solution (the team-building activity), but the desired performance and business results the client seeks. You are reframing what is discussed. 

To do this effectively requires two skills: 

  1. Form and ask powerful questions. 
  2. Use a compelling logic when asking those questions.

Form and Ask Powerful Questions 

What is a powerful question? It is one that causes your client to pause and reflect. Consider what one client indicated to his HR partner: “You ask questions I did not even know I had and then you help me to answer them.” When working as a performance consultant, there are three categories of questions you need to ask: 

  • “Should” questions identify both the business and performance goals and requirements. Business shoulds are identified numerically (“reduce preventable accidents by 27 percent”) and performance shoulds behaviorally (“team members should offer to assist one another during busy times”). 
  • “Is” questions clarify what currently is true in terms of business results and on-the-job performance. Information obtained from should and is questions enables you to identify the gaps that need to be closed. 
  • “Cause” questions focus on the root causes for the gaps that have been identified. Causes can be identified for business gaps as well as gaps in performance. 

These questions provide content regarding what is known and unknown about a situation. Uncovering what is unknown, but key to deciding the appropriate solutions, provides you an opportunity to partner with a client to obtain this missing information. Your role moves from solution provider to solution influencer and decider. 

Use a Compelling Logic When Asking Questions

Asking powerful questions is important, but insufficient, to a reframing discussion. You need to ask questions that follow a compelling logic path. This means you begin by starting with the client’s mindset. Recall the example of the client who wants to offer some type of team-building experience to address role conflict. Imagine this client’s reaction if the first question asked was, “What are your business goals for the coming year?” The response is likely to be, “Huh?” There is no connection—or logic—between the request and this question.  

The alternative approach is to begin by acknowledging the request for a team-building experience. Then segway to a discussion about performance by asking, “What have you observed occur within your team that leads you to the conclusion people would benefit from a team-building experience?” The question includes the request but moves away from the solution and onto a discussion of on-the-job performance. Once you have obtained information about performance as it should be and as it is, and the causes for any gap, you can move to a discussion about the business. An example could be, “Once your teams are performing as you have described, how will that performance benefit your business results?” You want to discuss business results, but need to do so in a manner that is logical to the client. 

As learning and performance professionals, we influence more by what we ask than by what we tell. It is imperative that the skill to ask questions that influence thinking of others is one we develop to a high degree, and then employ that skill so we reframe solution requests into discussions about desired results. 

For a deeper dive into this topic, join me at ATD 2017 Conference & Exposition for the preconference workshop: Performance Consulting: The What, Why, and How.