A few weeks ago, I had the fantastic opportunity to reconnect with an old friend I hadn't seen in 10 years. As we chatted, he of course asked what I'd been up to, with the conversation turning to a novel I'd written. When I admitted it was sitting idle and that I hadn't published it, he had just one question.

"Why haven't you done it?"

That single inquiry, I'm happy he unintentionally reminded me, is one of the most powerful tools any leader can have in their arsenal. Its magic is a triple whammy.

One question, three benefits

Asking "Why haven't you done it?" gets individuals and teams to identify logistical problems that are holding them back. In business, maybe that's the lack of a particular resource or overly complex protocols, for example. Often appearing as the variation "What do you need?", the question can result in incredibly useful analyses that can change the approach to a project or entire operations.

Second, it also forces people to address psychological hurdles. (This was certainly the case for me and my book.) Fear of judgment, lack of emotional support and even intimidation from others are all examples of mental roadblocks. While logistical issues aren't necessarily a cakewalk to fix, psychological barriers are perhaps even more important to address, simply because they can carry over into every other project or job you do.

But the last benefit of the question is the real gem. By properly asking others why they haven't done something, you come across as genuinely interested and give the impression that you care. You also can communicate that you have confidence in the other person, connoting that there's no reason to hold back or wait, given their abilities. Those three elements are huge building blocks to the trust you have with another person. And if you can get someone to trust you more, they'll be more willing to confide the issues holding them back, regardless of whether those issues might be on the logistic or psychological side.

How you ask matters

The caveat, as you might guess, is in the delivery. The wrong tone or body language--for example, crossing your arms and speaking with an edge in your voice--easily can come across as accusatory, which will make the person you're talking to feel defensive. They'll either shut down or argue with you, neither of which moves them forward and solves the problem they have.

Lean in. Relax your shoulders. Take nice, even breaths to decrease the variability in your heart rate and keep your brain energized and focused. Smile a little or let some sparkle come through your eyes. This approach visually tells the person you're talking to that there's no threat, decreasing the odds they'll react with a negative physiological stress response. If you're confronting yourself introspectively, that same approach, free of a lack of judgment, still works, with your body language reassuring your brain you're at peace even as you dive deep. Either way, the idea is to make the question really come across as "How can I fix it/help?" Do that and feeling inspired and more capable isn't far behind.