Jeffrey was the CEO of a hedge fund, and he was upset about some poor trades that Tom, one of his portfolio managers, made. He called Tom into his office. (This is a real example with real people, but I’ve changed their names.)

“Those trades were a terrible idea! What were you thinking?” Jeffrey asked Tom.

The conversation quickly went downhill. With that first question, it would have been hard for it to go any other way.

Why was it a bad way to start? “What were you thinking?” is a past-focused question. When Tom explains his thinking to Jeffrey, he’ll reinforce his mistake and sound defensive because his thinking was problematic and led to poor results. He doesn’t necessarily think the same way now, of course.

Let’s play it out. Tom will explain why he made that trade, and Jeffrey will get angry at his poor judgment. Then they’ll both leave the conversation frustrated and disheartened (which is, predictably, exactly what happened).

What could Jeffrey have done differently? A better choice would have been to avoid talking about the past and, instead, ask Tom about the future: “How will you do it differently next time?”

This kind of future-focused question allows Tom to acknowledge his mistake and demonstrate his learning. It will reinforce both people’s confidence in Tom’s abilities while also giving Jeffrey the opportunity to point out any further problematic patterns in Tom’s thinking — in a way that could help Tom make better decisions in the future instead of just making him feel bad in the present.

Another advantage of a future-focused question? It’s faster and more reliable because you’re removing one step in the learning process. Rather than going over your mistake and then (hopefully) applying the learning to a future situation, you go straight to the application.

Why don’t we all do this intuitively? Because, in the moment, we’re not feeling it. What we’re feeling is angry, and probably a little scared, frustrated, and annoyed. And then we blurt out, “What were you thinking?”

We do it in order to make ourselves feel better. We ask that past-focused angry question because our emotional overload in the situation is simply too much. We burst. But that’s not great leadership, and it’s not great communication. When we lead and communicate, we’re not doing it for ourselves; we’re doing it to help others improve.

Which means we need to tolerate our difficult emotions so they don’t overwhelm us, so they don’t get in the way of our intended impact on others.

Emotional courage is the willingness to tolerate all feelings. It’s entirely developable, and developing it increases your ability to lead effectively, get business results, communicate in a way that inspires others, and make the impact you’re trying to make. How do I know? My company, Bregman Partners, measured those changes in people who increased their emotional courage at our Leadership Intensive.

It’s one thing to know how to communicate in a way that inspires others and brings out their best. It’s another to actually do it, in the heat of the moment, when your emotions are high.

Here are a few keys to making it happen:

  1. When you feel emotional, be suspicious of any instinctive reaction. Before saying or doing anything, pause and take a breath.
  2. Pose a silent question to yourself: What is the outcome you want your next move to achieve? In other words, what do you want to happen as a result of your communication? Make sure you get to a real outcome. If your answer is that you want the other person to feel bad, ask yourself why. What are you hoping will result from their feeling bad? If your hopeful response is that they will make better decisions next time, then that is the outcome you’re going for. (The feeling-bad part is how you think they will get there — but you’re wrong.)
  3. Decide what you will do or say that will most likely lead to your ultimate outcome. Often, what you’ll find is the conversation that holds the greatest likelihood of getting to your ultimate outcome is about the future, not the past.

If you’re a leader, and you’re dissatisfied with someone’s performance, take that breath, identify the outcome you want, and then ask them what they plan to do in the future.

And if you’re Tom? If you’ve made a mistake and your manager asks you Jeffrey’s ill-advised question: “What were you thinking?

As I mentioned, it would be hard for the conversation to go well. Hard, but not impossible.

Even though your manager is asking about the past, it’s your turn to take that breath and ask yourself what outcome you want. Then, your best move is to ignore the question asked and, instead, answer the question that wasn’t asked: the future-focused one. “What was I thinking?” you could say. “Clearly, not the right things. But here’s what I would do differently next time…”