Project Management

Is there benefit in asking better questions?

From the The Healthy Project Manager Blog
Matching up wellness coaching and motivational interviewing techniques with project management—along with inclusion and inspiration—is my goal.

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Is there benefit in asking better questions?

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In an earlier career as a wellness coach, I was introduced to motivational interviewing (MI) and it has helped me become a better project manager by teaching me how to ask better questions.  MI is a counseling approach born out of the behavioral health field.  It was created as a way to talk with people resisting change.  For example, if someone was court ordered to seek counseling for drunk driving, the individual might meet with the counselor simply because that had too vs. honestly wanting to make a lifestyle change.  For wellness coaching, I was trained in the practice of MI to support people told by their physician they needed to lose weight or stop smoking for example.  It is very hard to make these kind of lifestyle changes – especially when not really wanting to or ready to change.

WHAT IS MI?  MI is an evidence-based way of speaking with someone else that is genuine, caring, collaborative and person-centered.  It’s a method of asking questions to help the other person think more deeply, and encourages them to move through the stages of change faster.  Often this is done by helping the individual see their strengths and use them to move forward.  For example, if a lawyer wanted to stop smoking, I might talk with them about the determination and discipline it took to go through law school.  During the conversation we would agree law school wasn’t easy and they were faced with many challenges, but in the end they received their diploma.  I would ask them to consider how they could use those same strengths and discipline in completing law school to approach tobacco cessation. 

MI IN PROJECT MANAGEMENT:  In project management, we often lead projects creating change for others – and often the change is unwanted, or the change is something people are not quite ready for.  Using MI when speaking with others has been very helpful for me to help others accept and even embrace change or explore what can be done to move forward. 

There are 5 basic rules of MI and they are:

  • Be an active listener – show the other person you care about how the change will affect them.  Active listening means you nod in understanding, you repeat what you think you understand and see if it lines up with what the other individual is saying.
  • You hold up an imaginary mirror to show the other person the difference between where they are today and where they want to be.  For example, when rolling out a new technology you might share what’s “in it for them”.  You might explore with the other person all the reasons why making a change could be an improvement or spend time looking at other times they have successfully conquered change.
  • Avoid arguing or confronting the other person directly.  When you speak using MI techniques, the other person doesn’t feel defensive.  For example, instead of saying “Why don’t you agree with and support this project?”......instead you might word it as “I get the impression you may not support this project, can you tell me more about your perspective?”  This opens the door for conversation without making the other individual put up a wall.
  • Tap dance by adjusting to the other person’s resistance instead of opposing it.  Examples of this be “it seems like you are being bombarded by so many changes all at once” or “from what you are saying it can be hard to accept change when leadership did not approach you first”.  These type of phrases help the other person realize you understand their perspective.
  • Find ways to support optimism and self-efficacy.   For example, “Last year you accepted 12 other technology advances and clearly have a lot of experience with change” or “Your team has been instrumental in stepping up and showing other departments how to lead changes in the past”.   It’s a way of helping the other person or the team believe in their abilities.

An aspect of using MI when speaking with others is referred to as OARS standing for Open ended questions, Affirmation, Reflective listening and Summary reflections.  OARS are important to achieving the best end result.  Let’s explore these:

  • Open ended questions.  Avoid asking anything that can be answered with a YES or a NO.  The reason for this is that you are trying to learn more, and you are trying to get the other person to think more about their situation.  You are curious but not leading the other person in a specific direction – only asking questions to help the other person verbalize their perspective.  For example if I asked an analyst if they could submit their data – their response would be YES or NO.  If I asked, are there any barriers or challenges you will face in submitting the data?  You might hear a lot more information to better serve your project.
  • Affirmations.  Pepper your conversation with these – examples might be – “I recognize you are being pulled in many different directions and have so many important assignments on your desk right now”.  Or, “I really appreciated how you responded to the email you received from a coworker today.  It was so professional and clearly stated your perspective in a respectful way”.  Whatever you choose to focus on – make sure your words are always genuine.  These truthful affirmations help the other person feel appreciated and valued.
  • Reflective listening.  These are not questions.  They are statements about what you heard to make sure you correctly understood.  For example, “I hear you are being pulled in many different directions and it is hard to know how to prioritize the work on your desk”.  During your conversation please avoid distractions, focus on what the other person is saying and do not interrupt.  This is often where you hear the crux of the matter – the core of the issue.  During this time you are 100% focused on what the other person is saying – your mind is quieted to assumptions or additional questions.
  • Summary reflections.  You want to make sure the other person realizes you heard and clearly understood what they told you.  This is when you tie a pretty bow on your conversation.  An example might be “Because of our discussion today, I have a much better understanding of your work load and why it appeared you were resisting this project.  I will work with your manager to ensure we both prioritize these assignments together to reduce any worry or frustration about what needs to be done next.  Thank you so much for taking the time to help me understand your situation better.” 

MI helps us all develop stronger connections with our stakeholders and leads us to greater project success.  Would you like to learn more about MI?  Do you think there would be value in a Webex presentation on MI?


Posted on: January 20, 2020 02:06 PM | Permalink

Comments (9)

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Dear Lori
Interesting perspective on the topic: "Is there benefit in asking better questions?"
Thanks for sharing

Very important points to highlight:
- The 5 basic rules of MI
- The type of questions to be asked, or OARS

Thank you Lori,
Really great and practical concepts. Thanks for sharing.


Very interesting topic and information. I just learned something new today - This post resonates with me a lot.


Lori, thank you for sharing this topic. Could you recommend us some books to share with our teams?

Hello Mayte! Yes, one of my favorite books has a slow start, so stay with it - it is called Motivational Interviewing, Third Edition: helping People Change by William R. Miller Ph.D., and Stephen Rollnick Ph.D.

I studied psychology in undergrad and so much of what I learned is relevant to project management - including motivational interviewing!

Dear Lori,

It look like MI from how you described it is about letting the interviewee rediscover traits or characteristics about themselves that they had either forgot or never new they had. An interesting alternative to conventional thinking.


Thank you for sharing this topic, As most of us are having many questions running in their mind, But MI will certainly help to segregate them or to convert them in to better questions.

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