Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 23;   June 10, 2009: Long-Loop Conversations: Asking Questions

Long-Loop Conversations: Asking Questions

by

In virtual or global teams, where remote collaboration is the rule, waiting for the answer to a simple question can take a day or more. And when the response finally arrives, it's often just another question. Here are some suggestions for framing questions that are clear enough to get answers quickly.
A Katrina rescue in New Orleans

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Lem Torres and a young boy are lifted to safety from the roof of the child's flooded home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The confusion in the management of the Katrina disaster will be studied for years. Much of it is probably traceable to the mismatch between the lengths of communications loops and the pace of the unfolding disaster. For instance, there is video of officials offering assessments that had been contradicted by actual video shown earlier in the same broadcast. The Katrina incident demonstrates that the critical parameter is not the length of a communication loop. Rather, it is the relationship between the pace of events and the loop length. During some phases of a project, loop length might be a little frustrating, but certainly not damaging. Yet, during other phases of the same project, the same loop length can be a severe project risk. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez.

Much collaboration today takes place between people who are unable to converse freely or conveniently. Because people are so busy, and so often separated by multiple time zones, the time required for a response to a question can be very frustrating. This is the long-loop conversational environment. Even a simple question can yield only another question in response. For instance, the first response to "When do you think you'll finish planting the rose bed?" might be, "Which rose bed do you mean?"

The trouble arises because the customary patterns of real time conversation are incompatible with the long-loop environment. Here are some effective tactics for asking questions in the long-loop environment.

Be ridiculously specific
Specificity reduces the likelihood that the responder will need further clarification. Avoid pronouns and generic terms such as "the rose bed" — instead, say, "Rose bed 3G on the south lawn."
But specificity entails risk. For instance, in the question above, if the asker meant to type "3G" but accidentally typed "3H," specificity would have resulted in at least one otherwise unnecessary loop traversal. Specific questions must be accurate. Proofread them twice.
Ask structured compound questions
In a real time conversation we can ask a series of questions, using each response to frame the next question. That approach is fastest in the real time environment because it avoids the clutter of unnecessary or poorly framed questions. But in the long-loop environment it can be maddeningly slow.
A structured compound question is actually a set of related questions, connected by a logical framework. An example: "If the answer to A is X, then I would ask B. If the answer to A is Y, then I would ask C. If the answer to A is anything else, then I would ask D." Asking structured compound questions can reduce the number of loop traversals.
Explain why you need to know
If you're Trouble arises because the customary
patterns of real time conversation
are incompatible with the
long-loop environment
asking a question, describe in detail the consequences of not knowing the answer. Motivate your correspondent to respond fully, accurately, and soon.
When the responder knows why you're asking, a wonderful thing sometimes happens. Suppose the asker is confused about something, and suppose that the asker's explanation of the need for the answer exposes that confusion. The responder might then be able to untangle the confusion. The time saved in this way might be far more than one or two loop traversals. The confusion avoided might have been much, much more expensive.

Discuss these methods with your correspondents before using them. Questions like these can seem strange, or even insulting, to anyone who hasn't seen their like before. And disrupted relationships can be even more costly than a few loop traversals.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Teamwork Myths: Conflict  Next Issue

For more suggestions for the long-loop environment, see "Long-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog," Point Lookout for June 24, 2009; and "Long-Loop Conversations: Anticipation," Point Lookout for August 12, 2009.

303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsIs your organization a participant in one or more global teams? Are you the owner/sponsor of a global team? Are you managing a global team? Is everything going well, or at least as well as any project goes? Probably not. Many of the troubles people encounter are traceable to the obstacles global teams face when building working professional relationships from afar. Read 303 Tips for Virtual and Global Teams to learn how to make your global and distributed teams sing. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenBVIXHLOrMsZvLUJbner@ChacLxuPEzixRzpbYnLDoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

What not to eat on the phone: Peanut butterVirtual Communications: III
Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here's Part III of some guidelines for communicating with members of virtual teams.
Water bottlesAn Agenda for Agendas
Most of us believe that the foundation of a well-run meeting is a well-formed agenda. What makes a "well-formed" agenda? How can we write and manage agendas to make meetings successful?
A headline about the War of the Worlds BroadcastDeliver the Headline First
When we deliver news at work — status, events, personnel changes, whatever — we sometimes frame it in a story line format. We start at the beginning and we gradually work up to the point. That might be the right way to deliver good news, but for everything else, especially bad news, deliver the headline first, and then offer the details.
A 1940s-era trap fishing boatNasty Questions: II
In meetings, telemeetings, and email we sometimes ask questions that aren't intended to elicit information. Rather, they're indirect attacks intended to advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part two of a catalog of some favorite tactics.
Gen. George Casey, Dep. Sec. Paul Wolfowitz, and Sec. Donald RumsfeldDismissive Gestures: I
Humans are nothing if not inventive. In the modern organization, where verbal insults are deprecated, we've developed hundreds of ways to insult each other silently (or nearly so). Here's part one of a catalog of non-verbal insults.

See also Effective Communication at Work, Project Management and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A review meetingComing December 13: Reframing Revision Resentment: II
When we're required to revise something previously produced — prose, designs, software, whatever, we sometimes experience frustration with those requiring the revisions. Here are some alternative perspectives that can be helpful. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976And on December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenBUAuLhTNtBSpltlener@ChacAtBvRZbDuLSlqdkmoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.