Studies show that when we have something on our mind it literally uses up energy. We have all had that restless, unsettled feeling when we can’t let something go from our mind. Sometimes the feeling is positive, like excitement over a new relationship or an upcoming vacation; but many times, the feeling is a negative one. Either way it can be draining and distracting.
More than just an energy drain, what we are holding in our mind will unconsciously influence the way we see the world and what draws our attention. If you have ever shopped for a new car, you know what I am talking about. Whereas we once saw the cars travelling around us as a sea of indistinct vehicles, we now notice every model, every colour, every feature. We start expending energy on noticing all the differences among cars while we grapple with this big purchase decision.
Whatever your mental focus is will also significantly affect your choices and decisions. Personally, I see this all the time with my own thinking. I recently became fixated on buying a boat so that I could spend more time with my son this summer. The issues around buying a boat soon consumed my thoughts. Only at the last minute, and thanks to a conversation with my wife, did I realize the path I was going down was going to lead to less time with my son and more time with a boat. I needed to snap out of the purchase process and take my thinking to a different place.
So how do we help someone on our team get that mental wake-up call?
In his book, The Coaching Habit, author Michael Bungay Stanier, calls this question the “Kickstart Question”:
What is on your mind?
He describes it as a little pressure release valve that can help make explicit something that might be unduly influencing the way someone works.
We really have no idea what is going on deep in the minds of our team members that might be influencing their happiness and effectiveness at work. Asking this question often gives people a chance to let us into that inner world. If we are only ever asking how the current project is coming along or how their team is doing, we don’t open the door in the same way. I have been experimenting with this simple question and practising keeping my mouth shut after I ask it, other than to encourage people to answer it any way they want. I find incredible power in this simple little question and I highly encourage anyone who is leading anyone else to ask often: “What is on your mind?”