12 Better Questions to Ask Un-cooperative Colleagues

Cooperation. Collaboration. Easy to prescribe. Hard to do. Why?

Because everyone is operating with different views of the goals. Some people might be skilled at their job, but still don’t know how to cooperate. Others may be anxious to hide their deficiencies on the project so they cannot cooperate. You get the picture.

It’s a hidden cost in your next project. And, there’s little point in analyzing why cooperation on your project is going to be difficult!

How do we simplify things a little, improve productivity and make progress? Ask better questions using a *Solution Focus framework:

  • Thinking of our project what’s working so far, or worked in the past?

This is a platform for noticing resources available to start moving forward

  • Thinking of our goals for the work, how would you express them?

Make sure you are talking the same outcomes and language to describe them.

  • What will be better / different from the last time or the current state?

Clarify perceived problems about getting to the goal. Clarify what needs to happen, but do not enter problem analysis.

  • Suppose we achieve our goal, what will be happening for the various stakeholders, including the customers and ourselves?

Get a richer picture of the goal outcomes to ensure that you are talking about the same outcomes. Find out what everyone wants.

  • Thinking of those outcomes, how will that be useful to each of us, i.e., achieving our personal / team goals?

Attach outcomes to individual needs.

  • What surprises / obstacles do we face in achieving the goals?

There are bound to be problems. Flush them out, but avoid problem analysis.

  • What would we do to overcome those surprises / obstacles?

Alleviate fears that will get in the way. Build resourcefulness ahead of time.

  • When we are successful, what will we and our leaders be saying about our cooperation / collaboration that helped to make it happen?

Be assumptive about the possibilities. Assume good faith will preside if everyone is pursuing the same outcomes.

  • What will we see ourselves doing to support each other, even when things get complicated?

Continue to have the team / individuals add details as to how cooperation will happen.

  • How will we acknowledge our successes, both as we progress and at the end?

Noticing (and measuring) success helps them notice their capabilities to cooperate.

  • What will be the first signs that we are making progress with our cooperation?

Get them doing something right away so they have evidence of their capabilities.

  • What would we each like to say to acknowledge your colleagues’ cooperation in this discussion?

Gets more fast-start application of cooperation.

Why ask so many questions? Slow down to speed up your project. 

Take an hour with the team st the start of your next project. Answer the questions. Save many inefficient hours getting to the outcomes.

*About Solution Focus

How to help the angry person find a solution

The angry professional!

We see ‘ experts’ venting their anger about oil pipelines, media commentators on Fox News talking over the equally angry person they’re conversing with, politicians throwing verbal punches during debates, and sometimes raging at life in general.

They also get into our meetings. They waste a lot of our time.

People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining. – Stephen Hawking

Unfortunately, they don’t know that their anger is wasting people’s time. They do know, however, that it’s getting our attention.

In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move. – Douglas Adams

Rational, or irrational, there is little chance that they are going to listen to either conciliatory or opposing voices. That often encourages them to vent more. They lack self-awareness.

Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.     – Thomas A Kempis 

How do we make some use of the angry person in the room? After all, they may have a useful point, but it’s not getting through.

Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.  – Aristotle 

Principle and practice #1. Do not engage with their line of thinking. Show them that you are listening, but don’t enter into their problem.

In Solution Focus we work with the following ideas:

Take them seriously, not literally!

Slow down to speed things up

Some people just need time to tell you their problem

There’s some good lines you can try. You may have to try all of them!

You are trying to help them find the key to the doorway out of their anger and move to solutions.

  • Wow! You seem quite angry / frustrated / helpless. That must be difficult for you.

Why: You’re acknowledging them. This helps them slow down.

  • So, you are saying (paraphrase their statement).

Why: Let them hear what they are saying. It may help them see they need to modify their position.

  • Sounds like this issue has been very difficult for you. What happened in the past when it wasn’t a problem?

Why: Helps them move away – a little – from the problem / anger.

  • Suppose it wasn’t such a big issue in the future, what would be happening? For you? For others?

Why: Begins to get them thinking beyond the anger

When they won’t stop being angry, be firm, ‘We’ll get back to that later’ or, ‘We’ll deal with that in another meeting’.

Why try these questions?

They slow down the momentum of the angry person and give you time to start a more purposeful conversation.

One question may be enough. Usually, it’s best to be patient and try a number of them until the person reveals where they are willing to begin to start listening.

Don’t expect the anger to go away permanently. Just expect the meeting to become more productive.

Practice these approaches and gradually you will find your own questions to help people unlock their anger and make sense.


How to Dramatically Improve Stakeholder Consultations

Asking stakeholders what they want used to be an exercise in self-flagellation. The assumption was that you had to take everyone’s perspective seriously and literally. Those that complained loudest were given the most attention.

Consultations are an important and growing component of aligning organizations, both public and private with the community / customers they represent or serve.

The clearest reason for stakeholder consultations is to make strategic and tactical decisions more effective and efficient.

They don’t have to be a form of torture. But, when you ask people for their opinion in an open form they will tend to express their doubts and concerns. For some, it’s a therapeutic opportunity to express their deep frustration. I remind you of my often-quoted line about frustrated voices; never wrestle with a pig – the pig enjoys the wrestling and you get dirty.

The good news is that progress has been made…

Here’s where you can turn consultations into powerful exercises to align communities and the organizations that have to make things happen.

Pre-planning should involve a core group of the stakeholder advisors to find out what outcomes they’d like to get.

Be clear on higher outcomes. For example a recent consultation was designed not only to actively listen to group of stakeholders largely at war with each other, but also to let them listen to each other.

Allow the group a short period in every session to express their concerns, but don’t let a few people dominate – we already know what upsets them and, other than ‘demands’ they usually can’t express what they actually want. When we discuss problems at any length it keeps the person in a state of being stuck. Our interest in their problem means we are not being helpful to them.

Better to ask the group, a) what’s working in their area, b) how they are managing to cope despite the complexity/difficulties and c) about exceptions to the problem. If the complainers want to go back to the problem, simply ask them what would be happening if the problem went away. Don’t skip asking about what’s working or make it short – it’s the basis of helping them get unstuck.

Turn to what needs to be different, or better in the future. Find out what the larger group has in common about what needs to get better. Start by asking, ‘Suppose more was working, what else would that be happening (for the community)?’

Get people thinking about actions by asking them what the larger group and some of the individual stakeholders might do to make progress right away.

Read back to the audience a long list of the purposeful things they said. Let them see you have been actively listening. Don’t promise lots of change, but instead offer progress – thanks to their input.

Help stakeholders make progress by noticing what everyone has in common about the need. Help them see they can have a role in making it happen with the support of the organizing body.

Here’s an example of local community stakeholders at work:

Don’t forget that customers are stakeholders too!


How to Deliver B2B Solutions From the Buyer’s Perspective

The hero in B2B selling is not the supplier’s product, or the sales person.

A while ago, clients started saying to B2B suppliers,

‘Stop talking to me about your product and start bringing me value I can use. Then, I might look at your product!’

Smart B2B suppliers, especially the senior sales people realize what matters most is the relationship and the value that’s delivered surrounding the product/service.


Most client buyers have their own problem – their buying system, or procurement process! Your key buyer can experience complexity selling your solution into their own system and stakeholders.

Their organization may even make them look like they are not a smart buyer!

So, for the key buyer it’s a personal performance issue – they have to look good in deciding to use you. Suppliers who do not recognize this is reduce their odds of success.

How can Solution Focus help in B2B solutions selling?

Simple! We always make the customer the expert in, a) what works for them and, b) what they want. From a recent B2B research project here’s an example of making the client the expert.

What has been your best experience with a B2B supplier and why? How was that helpful to you in your work?

What are your expectations of B2B (name type) suppliers?   The basics?   Good quality? Exceptional quality?

Inside your organization, what barriers would you like to overcome in engaging and selling a preferred B2B supplier?

How do you see your role in ensuring the supplier delivers to expectations?

From your experience, what differentiates our firm from other B2B (name type) firms?

What was the value that our firm brought to your organization?  How did our firm help you personally in your role?

On a scale of 1-10 (1 is least desirable, 10 is ideal), where does our firm sit on that scale as an effective business supplier?

Is there anything our firm might do more of, or better in the future to move up a point on the 1-10 scale?

Suppose we are successful with the next project, how will that have been useful to you and your key stakeholders?

How do you make your B2B client the expert in what they want? 


Why work with what’s working?

The stakeholder consultation participant said,

“We all have to realize (insert long list of complaints) … and it’s going to get worse!!”

The session facilitator responded;

“That must be very difficult for you! Let’s go back to the agenda.”


The group had started the day’s work with a review of what was already working in the sector issue we were addressing. We unearthed a great deal of useful information and captured it on the ubiquitous flip charts.

We had also discussed what needed to get better in the future. We had even briefly aired obstacles to success that we might work on later in the session.

The mood in the room was purposeful and expectant of both helpful dialogue and action planning emerging later in the afternoon.

The complaining party stayed silent for a while. Undaunted by the fact that his earlier list of complaints had little to do with the day’s subject, he hung back for a while before lobbing another grenade.

“The people in my group won’t buy this!”

To which the facilitator responded,

“It’s almost time for lunch. Let’s summarize the morning’s learning. How did you see it being useful to you?”


Was the facilitator being rude to the complainant? No.

What’s the value in working with what’s working and ignoring the problem (especially if it’s off-topic)?

Not only is ‘what’s working / worked in the past’ a good platform for encouraging people to think purposefully about difficult or complex tasks, but it also reveals:

–       What we don’t have to change

–       Insights about things we had not considered

–       Areas where we can maintain focus while we deal with the challenges

In other words, a goldmine.

Did the skeptic make inroads? Was the audience impressed by the complaints?

At the end of the day, the complainant was stuck in skeptic mode, but the rest of the room had moved from the past towards goals, strategies and action plans. Alignment around what was working led to alignment around what needed to happen next.

Whether you are a facilitator, a meeting chair, or a business leader, getting people to think about what works instead of problem-analysis gives groups a chance to unleash creativity and change.


Video: a client case

Get Yourself and Your Stakeholders in Front of Change

We have to be out front of change much of the time. Reacting to change as it happens is the old normal. The new normal is to anticipate, to not know exactly what will happen yet still have a plan.

Stakeholders ready to share their opinion

Part of the new normal is working with stakeholders who may or may not want what you, the organization, have in mind. Until now we have either patronized stakeholders by ‘listening’ to them, or let the loudest voice dominate, (usually a self-interested party or a complainer who doesn’t know what they want).

Why do we have to work with stakeholders if we want to stay ahead of change? It’s simple: in an inter-connected world if our fellow stakeholders are not with us, they will keep us in reactionary mode.

Here are some barriers that keep our stakeholders and us from staying ahead of change:

  • Stakeholders can never fully align with us, or among themselves
  • Stakeholders have unique needs, many of which we can’t fully understand
  • Stakeholders have discrete goals, but may not always be able to articulate them fully
  • As soon as we, the stakeholders and our organization, align, we quickly drift

If you have ever wondered where business politics originate, just revisit the last four points. Enough of that…

What can we do with our stakeholders to get ahead of change?

Here’s four easy, well-proven ways to have a stakeholder conversation about getting in front

  • Encourage only a brief conversation on problems and barriers. Use the dialogue only to define what you want to be different when you are ahead. Ensure all stakeholders have their say and don’t let one dominate.
  • Find out what’s already working for you and each stakeholder. Don’t skimp on this conversation. These are opportunities that you want to build on to get to the future. It’s the resource platform for the changes you do want to make happen.
  • Get everyone to imagine the future they want (based on the change you want to see).  Describe this in even greater detail and from various stakeholder perspectives. Decide on the key goals and measurables.
  • Pick a bunch of small action steps which both your team the stakeholders can see happening right away (literally!).
  • Write the plan. Communicate. Update. Communicate. Update. Communicate.

Here’s video evidence that this approach works. In this case, it shows a leading stakeholder in a sector building its reputation for making change happen among a newly formed community.

The traditional reason for consulting with stakeholders is to make our strategic and tactical decisions more effective and efficient. The goal now is create conversations about doing things differently ahead of change and on a sustainable basis.

Tips for Solutions Driven Strategic Planning

Want to get more out of strategic planning? Much more!

Want to make it a creative, concrete way to move the organization move forward right away?

How many times have you seen a SWOT analysis tilting to one side because the Threats and Weaknesses outweighed the Strengths and Opportunities? Why do planners, bless them, love to focus on the first two and skip lightly over the latter? Why do teams build their plans on the things they already know are not working?

Let’s not even bother answering those problem focused questions. Instead…

Here’s some of the solutions-driven questions used at the recent AMA Toronto strategic planning session:

What’s already working?

VIDEO: AMA Strategic Planning July 2011

What does the research tell us needs to be different?

What are the 5-6 most useful questions we need to answer in the planning work?

Suppose be made progress in the next three years, what would be better?

What outcomes would our key stakeholders, especially the various member groups be doing as a result?

How would do we see that be useful to our partners?

Suppose we focused on 5-6 strategic priorities, what would they look like?

Suppose our plan was communicated widely, what people see us doing?

View the outcome of using this approach: (Video)

Want details on using Solution Focus (and a pinch of process) to power up your planning? See page 62 of my book; Fry the Monkeys – Create a Solution

4 ways stakeholder consultation planning changed conversation in a town

What sort of results would you want from a stakeholder consultation in your town? Here’s the outcomes from the June 15, 2011 Port Hope planning consultation

Duncan Mackinnon, one of the the contributors to the town’s brand planning kindly answered my four questions.

Video: stakeholder planning consultation

1. What were the top 4 things that worked to bring HBIA group together, then to bring the stakeholders together?

Concerned downtown business owners in Port Hope began to talk among themselves about the decline in retail traffic by both visitors and locals. Initially, the mood was pessimistic and there was an “us” vs. “them” type of attitude.

Informal discussions quickly became more formal using the HBIA (Historic Business District Business Improvement Association). An additional HBIA committee was formed to focus on strategy with the group recruiting people with a mix of skills and experience to work on solutions.

An outside professional facilitator was engaged to mobilize the group. Information technology and social media played a huge role in quickly/collectively sharing news and ideas.

This group quickly realized the need to consult with a broad range of stakeholders who are concerned about the town’s future and that the issue was larger than just trying to fix downtown.

Effective Teamwork came into play as the committee reached out to people they knew at Town Hall, in business/industry, education, service clubs.

The Roundtable meeting that resulted with all parties under one roof was an enormous success in building morale. And, putting thoughts into motion.

2. You saw the facilitator using solution focus throughout the process, i.e., leading up to, and in particular at the stakeholder session. What were some of the things you noticed that worked for both HBIA and the stakeholders?

The solution based focus very quickly got everyone down to work and allowed for “pent up” positive ideas to come forth. It clearly helped to avoid getting bogged down in negative, defensive dialogue. The resulting sense of teamwork and word-on-the-street, positive vibe would not have been felt possible by many.

The result has been a major turnaround in attitudes and has got people thinking that anything is possible.

3. What did you see or hear happening in the few days afterwards?

The best phrase I can come up with is “A fire has been lit!”. Early, I mean at breakfast time, the very next morning, there was a buzz up and down the main street about the incredible meeting held at Molson Mill.

That morning, the town’s Tourism and Economic Development department staff were calling on shopkeepers asking what needed to be done and how they could help.

Town Council members were “pumped” and looking for ways to quickly implement the ideas discussed.

The email, Facebook and Twitter traffic was jumping with positive comments and COMMITMENTS.  It certainly demonstrated that such a coming together, in a positive way, was long, long overdue.

4. What steps do you see the group taking to make the learning and the actions sustain over time?

It’s critical to “Strike while the Iron is hot” so that we do not lose momentum. A top line thank you note and YouTube video link were sent to all participants by email. The video , with description, was also posted on Facebook and on various community websites. A follow up meeting is scheduled within 7 days. Also important is the identification of skilled new recruits who attended the session, to help implement ideas.