QBQ! | Book Review

“The QBQ! is built on the observation that our first reactions are often
negative, bringing to mind Incorrect Questions (IQs).”
(p. 17)

The best coaches are careful listeners, and very good at asking questions. John Miller’s The Question Behind the Question, or QBQ! helps us understand how and why we should ask better questions. Indeed Miller’s work perhaps influenced later works about coaching and questions such as Marshall Goldsmith’s Triggers.

This review introduces QBQs and how the application of such questions relates to teachable points of view found in Academy Leadership workshops. An additional section comments on the scarcity mindset.


Many attendees of Academy Leadership Coaching to Develop Leaders workshops realize what they believed was coaching was often evaluation, consisting primarily of talking rather than listening. There are good questions, and there are bad questions. Miller shares that many of our questions, especially when they begin with “Why?” “When?” or “Who?” are lousy questions. They’re negative and they don’t solve any problems (p. 10).

A coaching mindset offers an ideal starting point for the QBQ!:

A tool that enables individuals to practice personal accountability
by making better choices in the moment
. (p. 11)

 In Crucial Conversations, the question “What Do I Really Want?” aids us in mastering dialogue. Similarly, QBQs are questions we ask ourselves, not others (p. 18). Miller lists three simple guidelines for creating a QBQ! (p. 19):

1. Begin with “What” or “How” (not “Why,” “When,” or “Who”).
2. Contain an “I” (not “they,” “we,” or “you”).
3. Focus on action. 

Why this internal focus? As we learned in Creating a Motivational Environment workshops, we can’t change other people. Asking questions that focus our efforts and energy on what we can do makes us significantly more effective, not to mention less frustrated and happier (pp. 66-67). Or put another way, there’s no point in trying to tell others what to do.

We frequently hear the phrase leadership by example, and the term applies here. Miller advises us that to make a QBQ! action-focused, we add verbs such as “do,” “make,” “achieve,” and “build” to questions that start with “What” or “How” and contain an “I.” (p. 85). In contrast, he shares a list of lousy questions and their corresponding QBQs on pages 103-112. A couple standouts, relevant for any leader:

“How can I be a better leader?”
“What can I do to show I care?”
“How can I more effectively communicate?”


In our Accountability Compass workshop, we introduce the Accountability Ladder, which has a Hope and Wait rung just below the accountability border. Recall the lousy questions? When we ask “When?” we’re really saying we have no choice but to wait and put off action until another time (p. 34). Miller recalls encountering mangers, for example, who won’t take their group through training until “all the right people are in place.” (p. 41) Does that sound like your workplace?

Likewise, Blame and “Whodunit?” questions solve nothing. They create fear, destroy innovation, inhibit teamwork, build walls, and prevent people from engaging (p. 47). Or, as Goldsmith might ask, what do these questions trigger? We can probably all imagine the most pessimistic person we know, always ready to launch a question starting with “Why?”

Think of the approach used in an After Action Review, or AAR. Like the QBQ! the AAR focuses on “What?” Further, both concern a commitment of the head, heart, and hands to fix the problem and never again affix the blame (p. 61).

Effective Decision-Making

One of the benefits of our Energize2Lead workshops is learning to recognize, manage and minimize our stress levels. Miller also emphasizes that stress is also the result of our choices (p. 27). He cites procrastination, which increases our stress (p. 35). This claim is backed up by the Zeigarnik effect, whereby our memory of an activity is better after it has started, but is not yet finished. Miller concludes that one of the great things that happens when we make better choices: We get high on life (p. 59).

Scarcity Mindset

While not specifically referenced in Miller’s book, it seems a scarcity mindset leads to many poor questions. Miller reminds us that anyone can fall into the “Why” trap… or victim thinking (p. 21). It’s the opposite of coaching. Consider when playing victim, who am I serving? (p. 25).

Miller’s best example of this mindset is focusing on what we don’t have, ultimately a waste of time and energy, which also kills innovation (p. 41). He cites Deb Weber (State Farm Insurance) “I find that every time I do the job with the tools I have, I tend to receive more tools.” (p. 41) Weber clearly has an abundance mindset.


Miller has a great explanation of the Knowing-Doing Gap,

Learning is really about translating knowing
what to do into doing what we know
, (p. 117)

 that summarizes his pioneering work.

Note: John Miller generously provided a copy of his book for review.

JE | December 2018