When it Comes to Asking Tough Questions, How Well Do You COPE?


Recently I was asked to provide some advice to inexperienced managers about asking “tough questions” to their boss.  Examples included asking for a raise or special consideration, seeking clarification on expectations, getting some feedback or direction about performance and future opportunities—or any other scenario where the stakes seem high and therefore, might cause some anxiety.

They key here is preparation, that is, taking some time to think through the conversation in advance and prepare your mind for the dialogue.  For many years, I was a “wing it” kind of person and I don’t recommend it if the matter is an important one.  As a lover of simple but powerful solutions, I developed a framework that would help people organize their thought process and approach.   I call it the COPE Strategy, where

C=Clarity.  Knowing what you want may seem elementary, but it is amazing how often people go into a situation without “crystal clarity” on what we are after.  More importantly, being clear on the reasons you want what you want will provide an anchor whenever the conversation starts to go sideways.  Understanding your true motivation in making the request will help you appreciate its importance and level of priority as well.  Spending time to gain clarity by thinking through, writing out, and even sharing and practicing it with a trusted advisor ahead of time will provide further preparation, making you more confident when the actual conversation takes place.

O=Outcome.  In framing your thought process, it’s critical to think in terms of the outcome or result or end game.  What are you ultimately after?  How does it fit in to your other priorities?  And what other impact would that result have on the organization, apart from you?  If possible, make that outcome something measurable, so you know when you’ve been successful in achieving it.

P=Perspective.  Be sure to consider how other participants / stakeholders in the conversation will view it; in other words, don’t get caught up in your singular view of the status quo.  When you are able to broaden the lens through which you view the situation, it is easier to position your request with a goal of creating a win/win, increasing your chance for success.  Be sure to think through how the other person is likely to react and “what’s in it for him or her.”  Be prepared with benefits to others and the organization as a whole in what you are proposing.

E=Energy.  Be aware of the energy in the room and deliberate about the quality of the energy you bring to the conversation or interaction.  What image are you projecting?  Are you confident, with a positive attitude or are you nervous and unsure of yourself? Is the other person distracted or engaged?  Be sure to be sensitive if you’re timing is off and reschedule if necessary.

The interesting thing about this simple model is that it can be applied from either side.  If you are the recipient of a request or question that is difficult or challenging, you can:

  • Ask clarifying questions to understand what the person wants and why it’s important;
  • Discuss possible outcomes and alternatives;
  • Offer a different perspective on the problem or issue at hand and
  • Maintain a positive and supportive attitude, even if you can’t resolve the issue to mutual satisfaction.

This methodology has been applied in a variety of situations involving two or more people and it seems to work.  It provides some structure to follow, and helps to keep the discussion on track.

As always, I’m interested in hearing your feedback about how you have used the model and what your experience has been.

#deliberateleader #communications #askingquestions