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Have you ever been asked a question you knew the answer to but froze?

That frozen reaction was likely caused because the question elicited the fight-flight-freeze response in you. Your brain heard the question, but your body interpreted it as some kind of threat.

Neuroscientists say that the subconscious can process over 40 million nerve impulses per second, whereas the conscious mind’s prefrontal cortex, only 40 nerve impulses per second.

Let’s say you’re coaching a leader who is trying to land the next promotion, and she gets a behavioral interviewing question during her formal interview—“Tell me about a time when you…dealt with conflict on your team.”

While her conscious brain is trying to think of the right story, her subconscious brain could be working overtime, remembering an embarrassing moment or the painful fall-out associated with the conflict.

Her inner critic can show up with its own story of “you should have handled that conflict better… you really blew that… if you tell the interviewer this story, you might look incompetent, and then you might not get this promotion, and then all your coworkers will know you didn’t make the cut, and then what about the raise you were hoping for… your son needs braces and you want to be able to enroll him in that summer program that will help prep him for his college entrance exams … gosh, do I have what it takes to manage this role … and and and…)

As coaches, when we recognize the body’s natural tendency to shift to fight-flight-freeze, we can adjust our questions to lessen this reaction.

Enter Curiosity vs. Quiz Questions.

We can’t prevent the people we speak with from going into the Red Zone of fight-flight. Some questions we ask will be uncomfortable—both for the client and for you. You may be hesitant to ask a question for fear of making the client scared or offended, or opening up a can of worms.

So when you’ve got a question to ask your client that might be perceived from a fight-flight state, here are two brain-friendly tips:

Bathe it in curious compassion

  • Remember your common humanity—the client is doing the best they can, just as you are.
  • Remove judgment or bias from your questions.
  • Wonder where/from whom the client first conditioned himself/herself to fear whatever it is that’s causing concern.
  • Appreciate the client—his/her essence, highest self, strengths, journey.

Consider “buffering” questions:

  • “This might be an uncomfortable question, so let’s get it out in a safe space to explore…”
  • “A question is coming up, and it’s being posed from the position of ‘on-your-side advocate’ …”
  • “Just between you, me and the fencepost, what’s the scariest question you could be asked right now?”
  • “This question is being addressed to your higher self—that part of you that easily sees the big-picture trajectory in all of this…”

Avoid Quiz Questions, and enjoy asking Curiosity Questions! Coach on!