In the first week of my last job, I was handed a spreadsheet that became my personal sleep paralysis demon. Filled with columns and columns of useful data points, the sheet was supposed to help me understand (and do) my job every day. But I was decidedly not data-literate, and as I worked through my first assignment, the spreadsheet had me struggling. I imagined my teammates pirouetting through pivot tables, while I strained and sweated cell by cell. Everybody else gets this, I thought to myself. It’s just me who can’t figure it out! When my manager asked me how the project on my plate was going, I nodded and chirped, “Great!”
Actually, I’d broken into a small stress-rash that morning. It was decidedly not great.
I did end up eventually telling my new boss I was having a hard time. But the hesitation I felt isn’t uncommon: It’s not always easy to admit when we’re hitting roadblocks at work, and especially not when we think we’re the only one struggling. And if you’re a manager looking to get more honest feedback from your team about what’s tripping them up, it could help to reframe the questions you’re asking.
The idea comes from author Ozan Varol, who talked about his own reframing moment in a recent interview with leadership speaker and writer Daniel H. Pink. Varol spent years as a law professor, where he’d often teach large first-year lectures to rooms of students. But he encountered a recurring habit in his classes: Whenever Varol wrapped up a lesson and asked if the students had any questions on the material, nobody would raise their hand. Satisfied that everyone had understood the session, Varol would move on to the next. But exams and turned-in assignments showed the students were more confused than they were letting on.
So Varol tried a simple reframe that surfaced more honest answers—or, rather, honest questions. He decided to acknowledge that the lesson was challenging, and that everybody probably had questions.
With that set-up in place, he then asked for questions. In effect, the reframe would sound something like this: “The material we covered was really confusing. I’m sure there are plenty of you with questions. Now is a great time to ask them.” The results: Students dropped their hesitation and raised their hands.
So why did it work? “My reframed question normalized confusion,” he says. It’s difficult to be the first to admit when something is challenging us—especially when we think you might be the only one who’s challenged. By hearing that everyone is challenged, we can sidestep our reluctance to acknowledge when we’re confused—and be more honest about what we’re stuck on.
Ask a question, then ask it a different way
Listening to Varol’s advice, I was reminded of an easy technique that helps us ask better questions. It’s something that Stanford management professor Tina Seelig calls frame-storming. The idea is that when posing a question or a challenge, simple changes in your wording can help pull out more responses. Asking a question in a few different ways can get you a better frame—and better answers.
“One of the most powerful things about brainstorming is the question you ask,” Seelig says in an episode of the Stanford Innovation Lab podcast. “If you ask the wrong question, or you don’t question the question you asked, you’re really missing an opportunity.” That’s useful not just for brainstorming ideas, but also asking for honest feedback or surfacing challenges.
How to actually get your team to tell you what’s challenging them
The question reframe that worked for Varol can have easy applications for managers, too. Say you’re having a weekly one-on-one or quarterly review with your reports. If you ask a team member if they’re facing any challenges, they “might be reluctant to say yes because they fear that their admission will be seen as a weakness,” Varol says in the interview.
“You’re more likely to get an honest, insightful response if you say something like, ‘We just finished the really tough quarter. Everyone’s facing significant challenges,’” he adds. “‘I’d love to hear about yours.’”
Instead of asking about obstacles, acknowledge that there are obstacles. By emphasizing how those roadblocks are common, then, we can sidestep our hesitation in naming them. And in heading right to honest answers about what’s challenging us, managers can fast-track the way to finding solutions.