Three questions lie at the heart of effectiveness. The better you can answer these three key questions and act on the answers, the more effective you will be:

  1. What results do I want?
  2. How can I create the results I want?
  3. What results am I creating?

In my coaching and consulting practice, I've notice that people often focus predominantly on question 2, on "what can I do." In particular, when people are feeling stuck or ineffective, they're likely focusing exclusively on what to do. Even more specifically, they're likely focusing exclusively on how to carry out some previously chosen course of action.

One clue that people are overly attached to a course of action is the way they ask for help. When people ask "How can I ..." or "What can I do to ..." or "What's the best way to ..." in a way that suggests they have been struggling to answer the question themselves, I begin to suspect that they may be neglecting to ask the other questions: What results do I want? What results am I creating?

There's something seductive about focusing on what to do. I'm certainly susceptible to the seduction. My story about finding the right word is an example of that. I'd been struggling to find just the right word for "the people you're asking to change." I'd somehow chosen finding just the right word as my goal, and didn't know how to find just the right word. With the help of my writer friends I realized that my stuckness came largely from holding too tightly to that goal. When I changed my focus from "how can I" to "what do I want," I quickly discovered that my deeper problem wasn't how to find just the right word for "the people you're asking to change," but how to write in a gender-inclusive way. Once I understood my deeper problem, I quickly solved it.

What makes focusing on what to do so enticing? Perhaps it's because it seems to lead directly to action, directly to resolution. And perhaps it's because we know that we will achieve our goals only through action. And perhaps it's because focusing on action usually works.

It's only when focusing on action doesn't work that people become stuck. And in those cases, focusing on what to do often leaves people even more stuck. But there's something about being stuck that encourages people to strive even more intently to figure out what to do. A vicious circle.

And that's when they ask me for help. So by the time people ask for help, they are often not only stuck, but also intent on figuring out how to carry out the course of action that got them stuck in the first place. I've learned, from my own experience and from observing other people, that if people are persisting in a course of action that isn't working, it's likely that either they are not staying mindful of what they want or they are not seeing clearly the results they're creating.

This model of effectiveness is a centerpiece of my approach to coaching and consulting. One of the most helpful things I can do for clients is to ask the questions that they have been neglecting: What do you want? and What is happening? Time after time, these questions have proven to be both simple and powerful.

What makes these questions so powerful? One key benefit of asking "what do we want" is that simply revisiting our goal often jiggles us into imagining other ways to achieve it, or at least into considering that there may be other ways to achieve it. My "just the right word" episode is an example of that.

A key benefit of asking "what is happening" is that it invites us to seek information, or to recognize that we already have information, that can help us evaluate adjust our course of action.

Here's an example in which I persisted in a dysfunctional course of action in part because I had neglected this simple question. The story takes place one day in 1992. A group of coworkers and I had for months been gathering in the cafeteria for snacks and conversation every afternoon at around 3 o'clock. For at least two weeks I had been holding court, moaning about our ignorant manager, and his stupid manager, and his bonehead manager, all the way up to the company's evil CEO and deranged President.

On this particular afternoon, as we finished our break and were headed back to work, my friend Jack said to me, "You really know how to bring a conversation down."

Yikes! I immediately recognized the truth of what he'd said. And I immediately disliked that it was true. I had been so focused on complaining, on my dysfunctional course of action, that I was oblivious to the effect I was having on my friends. Jack's comment answered a question that I had neglected to ask: What results am I creating with my complaining? I immediately vowed to stop moaning all over my friends, and I spent some time figuring out what I really wanted, and how better to achieve it.

What results do I want? How can I create the results I want? What results am I creating? I've used these questions countless times to improve my own performance, and to help my clients create the results they want.