A Simple Recipe for When Conversation Feels Stuck

Guest Post by Amber Johnson

A few years ago, I heard a cookbook author on a radio program. She mentioned that recipes from several decades ago are different from those of today—older recipes offered less explicit instructions because they assumed home cooks had a basic understanding of cooking processes.

One of my own favorite family recipes, for Grandma Anderson’s Shortcake, offers measurements for flour, butter, and sugar and then just says, “add enough milk to make a batter.” My grandma, and the recipe, figured this would be enough instruction for me to figure it out from there. (She was right!)

This newsletter is a lot like those old recipes. I can provide a few basics, but I assume you have enough understanding of your own context to take the basics and make them work for you.

With that in mind, let me offer one of my favorite recipes for taking an average question and making it something special.

A recipe for improving your questions when the conversation is stuck

When a conversation feels stuck, or I need the conversation to be more productive and interesting, I often ask a question that sounds something like, “What does INGREDIENT A look like from the perspective of INGREDIENT B?”

What are the ingredients? That’s the part you have to figure out, but I can offer a few examples.

Imagine your team is struggling with having too much to do and not enough time. The week’s task list is overflowing. So on Monday morning you ask, “What do our week’s priorities look like from the perspective of our long term strategic plan?”

See how that question might help you rethink what is truly a priority and what is not? It could help you see what “urgent” tasks on your to do list actually carry little long term value. Maybe those tasks don’t really have to be done, or could be given to someone else. Or that question might help you surface differences between your priorities, and those of your team members; that’s a good discussion to have.

For longer conversations, you might try on a few different perspectives. Here’s an example for planning a vacation with friends or family:

  • What does vacation look like from the perspective of rest?
  • What does vacation look like from the perspective of play?
  • What does vacation look like from the perspective of connection?

Or, if you were working with a school system, you could ask:

  • What does our school look like from the perspective of educational justice?
  • What does our school look like from the perspective of achievement?
  • What does our school look like from the perspective of mental wellbeing?

You see how flexible this question recipe is, right? Using this formulation almost always leads the conversation somewhere more expansive or informative than before. The ingredients are up to you.

BONUS QUESTION: What food makes you feel nostalgic?

That’s a fun question to ask in almost any context. Ask at dinner with friends to relive the best junk food of your youth (Schwan’s orange cream push pops), or ask as an icebreaker with colleagues to learn a little more about family histories in an appropriately vulnerable way.

Email me at aj@amberajohnson.com with your answer to that question, and I’ll send you Grandma Anderson’s Shortcake recipe, just in time for strawberry season. You will need to guess at how much milk is required to make a batter, but I trust you can figure that out.

Note from Bob:  I love Amber’s Bonus Question, “What food makes you feel nostalgic?”  My Answer:  Angel Food Cake with White Fluffy Frosting and Homemade Ice Cream!  I have had an Angel Food Cake for every birthday since I was one!  And I have had Homemade Ice Cream every Christmas Eve since I was a baby!  

 

Amber Johnson

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amber Johnson, Ph.D., is a leadership consultant with a passion for asking powerful questions. She is the author of the newsletter, Better than Fine: A Guide to Asking Better Questions for Better Relationships and Results, available at AmberAJohnson.com/Better-Questions

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