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January 05, 2011
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Brian Willis If I Knew Then...
with Brian Willis

How do questions help you?

Questions — especially open-ended ones — help to uncover information, wisdom, knowledge, hopes, dreams, motives, choices, answers, and most importantly, more questions

Jim Rohn is widely credited with saying that you must constantly ask yourself these questions: “Who am I around? What are they doing to me? What have they got me reading? What have they got me saying? Where do they have me going? What do they have me thinking? And most important, what do they have me becoming? Then ask yourself the big question: Is that okay? Your life does not get better by chance, it gets better by change.”

For most of my 25-year police career and my 20-plus years as a law enforcement trainer, I thought that the ability to make change and influence behavior was the result of always having answers to questions and solutions to problems. I mistakenly thought that my job as a law enforcement professional and trainer was to be a problem solver and I assumed that meant I had to always come up with the right answers and solutions.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve discovered that the real ability to create lasting change comes in the form of questions. Questions — especially open-ended ones — help to uncover information, wisdom, knowledge, hopes, dreams, motives, choices, answers, and most importantly, more questions. This applies to your personal and professional life. Let me share a handful of examples:

1.) Asking more questions of victims would have helped me gain more information about both the victim as a person and the crime. Those questions would have helped those victims feel like someone truly cared about them as a person as opposed to just being another statistic. Asking more questions of suspects would have drawn out more detailed and varied information, unveiled more offences, and provided me with an insight into how criminals think. All of this would have made me a better investigator and resulted in more solved crimes. Too often we just ask the basic questions to fill in the appropriate boxes on the report and then move on to the next call.
2.) Asking more questions of my children would have given me a greater insight into what was going on in their lives and about their fears, hopes, and dreams. I would have learned more about their friends and experiences at school. I am not talking about interrogating children and treating them like suspects. I am talking about creating a habit of engaging in discussions where you ask open-ended questions and truly listen to the answers. All this would have helped me be a better father.
3.) Asking more questions of the people I was given the privilege of supervising and leading would have provided me with an even deeper understanding of what was important to them on both a personal and professional level. Those questions would have helped to develop me into a better leader.
4.) Asking more questions of my wife (we are approaching our 30th anniversary) would have helped me understand what it was like to be the wife of a cop. It would have given her a greater chance of being heard, of being understood and of feeling more valued in the relationship. As a result, I would have been a better husband.

For some time as a patrol supervisor, incident commander, and trainer I mistakenly thought the key to debriefings was to tell more and ask less. Tell officers what they did right, what they did wrong and what they need to do differently. I was under the mistaken belief that this methodology would change behavior and improve performance.

Occasionally it did, but rarely to the extent that I hoped for.

It has taken me 20 years, but I believe I’ve discovered that the key to effective debriefings is to ask more and tell less. As Dan James says, “Asking questions will get you the performance you are after far better than dictating demands.” Questions help everyone involved learn and grow through self-reflection — a more powerful tool for creating lasting change than being told what to do by someone else.

Questions such as:

1.) How did you feel about your performance?
2.) What did you do well?
3.) What did you learn from the experience?
4.) What would you like to do differently in a similar situation in the future?
5.) What do you need from me for you to be more successful in the future?

One specific question I wish I had known very early in my life is the question that I now refer to as life’s most powerful question: What’s Important Now? This one question would have helped me in a number of ways:

• It would have slowed me down when I was racing to a call that in no way justified the risk to myself, my partner and the members of the public who were on the roadway
• It would have gotten me off my ass on those days where I used being tired as an excuse not to work out
• It would have helped me eat healthier
• It would have made me wear my body armor on those days when I was to lazy or too stupid not to wear it
• It would have made me take a step back and reconsider before rushing through that door to make the arrest that could have waited until we had better intelligence or more resources
• It would have helped me set aside my ego and terminate some pursuits
• It would have gotten me to spend more time both at the range and dry firing to improve my firearms skills
• It would have inspired me to attend more conferences and courses at my own expense early in my career
• It would have motivated me to read more in the early parts of my life and my career
• It would have made me realize the benefits of maximizing the funding available through the city to help pay for secondary education earlier in my career
• It would have inspired me to spend less time at work and more time at home especially in the last 8½ years of my career when as a training Sergeant I put in close to 7,000 hours of unpaid overtime
• It would have driven me to seek out training and skills outside of law enforcement to make me a better presenter and trainer

One question I wish I had never learned as a cop is “Do you want to do this the easy way, or the hard way?” It seems that the hard way always involved a fight which usually resulted in someone being injured and was too often followed by a citizen’s complaint. As Peter Drucker says “The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong question.”

I would encourage you to do three things in both your personal and professional life:

1.) Take the time to ask more questions.
2.) Take the time to actively listen to those answers.
3.) Repeat.


About the author

Brian Willis is an internationally-recognized thought leader, speaker, trainer, and writer. Brian serves as the Deputy Executive Director for the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA) and is President of the innovative training company Winning Mind Training. Brian was a full time police officer with the Calgary Police Service from 1979 to 2004. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his contribution and commitment to Officer Safety in Canada and was named Law Officer Trainer of the Year for 2011. He is also editor of the highly-acclaimed books W.I.N.: Critical Issues in Training and Leading Warriors , W.I.N. 2: Insights Into Training and Leading Warriors, and his latest work, If I Knew Then: Life Lessons From Cops on the Street , are all available through (www.warriorspiritbooks.com). Brian is a member of NTOA, ITOA, IALEFI, and the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers. Brian can be reached through his website at www.winningmindtraining.com.

Brian can be reached via e-mail at brian.willis@policeone.com.





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