Dr. Phil’s Famous Question

Unless you’ve been stranded on a deserted island for the last several years or sequestered in a mountain top monastery, you’ve probably heard of Dr. Phil McGraw. Oprah’s former protege has earned his own iconic status in daytime television with 25 Emmy nominations and millions of daily viewers. With a reported net worth approaching $300 million, he is now branching into the weight-loss industry and virtual, on-demand medical care. Dr. Phil is perhaps the world’s best-known psychologist since Freud.

Of course, Dr. Phil is not without his detractors. Broadcasting a person’s problems on national television under the guise of helpful therapy, as well as pursuing more salacious topics for the sake of ratings, raises ethical questions for which most mental health professionals have clear answers. Nevertheless, Dr. Phil remains popular with the masses.

Admittedly, I’m not a big Dr. Phil fan and I struggle with “pop” psychology in general. However, Dr. Phil’s trademark question, often offered after guests try to justify their approach to dealing with a particular situation, has tremendous value in many areas of life. Of course, the question Dr. Phil made famous is: “And how’s that working for you?”

I have even found myself responding with Dr. Phil’s famous question to my own clients’ interpersonal conundrums. Being in the training and talent development industry, the questions are often related to learning and development initiatives and the myriad of psychometric or personality assessments in the market. Often, the questions are variations of “We’ve used such-and-such assessment or training in the past, why should we now use yours?”

These are fair questions, especially since there are 2,500 different psychological assessments on the market and even more commercially available courses. With so many options, it’s important to discern what will best fit your organization. Dr. Phil’s famous question can often get the conversation started in the right direction because what’s best is what works—what works in your context, what works to drive the results you want, and what works for the people who need to get things done within your organization.

When learning leaders who have implemented Core Strengths: Results through Relationships are asked the famous question, they always give a variety of positive responses, but most touch on the three building blocks that apply to all successful L&D initiatives:

    It’s simple. People are busy. They’re bombarded by an overwhelming amount of information on a daily basis, so many are constantly on the verge of cognitive overload. While Core Strengths training is based on deep psychological science, the profound ideas are presented simply. In fact, the learning model for Core Strengths is as simple as ABC—because that is the learning model. If your current training or assessment can’t be explained using common, everyday language by someone who is not a subject-matter expert, then it might be too complicated for people who already have a lot on their plates.

    It’s memorable. Think about the things in life you remember: What the colors on a traffic light represent, your address, or the recipe for your favorite, go-to dinner after a long day at the office. Contrast this memorable information to course content from virtually any of the required courses you took in high school or college. How many of you can remember the names of the kings and queens of England from European history class? Didn’t like history? How about literature? What’s the storyline and who are the key characters from Madame Bovary? You get my point.

    It’s useful. Because you remember simple and important information, it becomes useful as you deal with the daily issues of life. Good training is the same way. It helps you perform better. If you can remember that new concept or skill, you’re much more likely to use it when you need it—like during an important conversation with your manager when the stakes are high.

If your training or personality assessment is not simple, memorable, and useful, it’s probably not working for you as well as it should. Of course, if you not getting the results you want, consider how you can make changes that will move you, your team, and your organization in the right direction.

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Dr. Mike Patterson is a principal at Core Strengths and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. He is also the co-author of Core Strengths: Results through Relationships training and the highly acclaimed book, Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places. Contact him at

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