Thursday, April 18, 2013

Asking the Right Question

"But what do I say?"  This from my daughter, a middle school student who is rarely at a loss for words.  She had just discovered her grades were lower than she thought in one of her classes, and had agreed to go talk with her teacher about it.

One of the core development programs offered for business leaders teaches us to "move to the other person's box".  In other words, get out of your own space.  Try to understand where the other person is coming from, what matters to them, what situation they're in.

I shifted my perspective from parent to teacher.  What should she say?

Here's the plan we developed together:

  • Do your homework first.  She claimed to have studied, but was still getting answers wrong on her quizzes.  Before going to her teacher, she should compare her notes to the quizzes.  If the answers weren't there, she either wasn't taking good notes or she wasn't studying some other resource that she needed to know about. 
  • Don't triangulate.  Mom and Dad were going to stay out of it and let her attempt to resolve it on her own.  If that was not successful, we could always get involved directly later.  
  • Timing matters.  Ask for a separate meeting, not the last 3 minutes of class when the teacher has a line of students at their desk and is trying to get organized for the next period.  
  • Show your work.  Begin the conversation with her concern and the research she'd already put into it.  This would demonstrate ownership as well as speed along the conversation.   
  • Make the request.  And, as happens so many times, the wording of this request was critical.  We went back and forth on it, and decided that what she really needed to ask was:  "What can I do differently in the future to improve my performance?".  It was proactive and once again showed ownership, of both the problem and the solution.

It was a successful meeting.  Turns out she was taking all the notes, but not organizing them properly, and thus not associating the information correctly.  She's feeling very optimistic about being able to make the changes and seeing better scores on her next quiz.

And as it turns out, her approach impressed the teacher.  He told her he had never had a student come to him and ask what they could do differently going forward.  The typical question was "How do I fix this?", which is really a request to reinvent history, to get around the system somehow with an exception.

Even when people come to us with the wrong question or the wrong approach, if we're open to it, it can be a teaching moment.  And when they do get it right, say so and show your appreciation.

Feeling appreciative today for a teacher who told my daughter that she asked the right question to get the best answer.  


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