The waiter arrived with the cold drinks and started dealing them out. That usually meant that the sandwiches were close behind. The great service was one reason they all liked Mike's.
"Good question," said Kevin, pulling a pen from his pocket. "Napkin, James." James was closest to the napkin dispenser.
So he obliged. "Ah, the old back-of-the-napkin trick," said James. "Can't do it in your head, eh Kev?"
Marian loved watching these two go at each other. They were having fun.
Kevin was thinking, pen poised. "Marian, tell us one more time," he said.
"OK," she said. "64 teams in the tournament. Single elimination. How many games total will they play?"
Kevin thought there was a trick. "So, 32 games in the first round, 16 in the second…like that?"
Before Marian could answer, James solved the riddle. "63 total games," he said, smiling at Kevin. "Next question."
Stung, Kevin looked at James. "How'd you do that?"
James was in his glory. "Easy. Single elimination. Everybody but the winner has to lose once." He smiled again.
Sometimes, especially in meetings, we ask questions for which we don't really need the answers. Like Kevin, we believe we need the answers, but we're mistaken. And sometimes we ask questions for reasons that are even less straightforward.
- We're hoping to catch somebody "not knowing" or better yet, being wrong.
- Sometimes we ask questions
when we don't really need
- We want to keep everyone occupied while we think things through, or until word on an important issue arrives by instant message.
- We realize that spending time on other issues leaves less time for the group to focus on us.
- Piling on
- We're hoping that the volume of questions about someone's task will create an impression that success is in doubt.
- Astuteness proof
- We believe that very few will understand the question we're asking, which will demonstrate yet again that we're so clever that we ought to be in charge of the galaxy. Or at least this team.
Even when the questioner's motives are pure, we can sometimes experience questions as attacks. When we do, we can become fearful or defensive, and the conversation can take a wrong turn.
There is a better way.
Instead of asking others for information, give information about your own internal state. If you're truly confused or ignorant about something, say so. Tell the group, "I don't understand that." Or, "It seems to me that X conflicts with Y."
If the group can clarify things for you, they will. If not, most will turn to the person who's responsible for the item, and then it will be clear that your muddle isn't just your own muddle.
When we replace questions with statements of personal ignorance or confusion, there are many fewer questions, many fewer statements of ignorance, and meetings go faster. Seems obvious to me. Or maybe I just don't understand why we ask each other so many questions. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Shining Some Light on "Going Dark"
- If you're a project manager, and a team member "goes dark" — disappears or refuses to
report how things are going — project risks escalate dramatically. Getting current status becomes
a top priority problem. What can you do?
- Asking Clarifying Questions
- In a job interview, the interviewer asks you a question. You're unsure how to answer. You can blunder
ahead, or you can ask a clarifying question. What is a clarifying question, and when is it helpful to ask one?
- Getting Into the Conversation
- In well-facilitated meetings, facilitators work hard to ensure that all participants have opportunities
to contribute. The story is rather different for many meetings, where getting into the conversation
can be challenging for some.
- Cognitive Biases and Influence: I
- The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive
biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support.
- How Messages Get Mixed
- Although most authors of mixed messages don't intend to be confusing, message mixing does happen. One
of the most fascinating mixing mechanisms occurs in the mind of the recipient of the message.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 3: Capability Inversions and the Dunning-Kruger Effect
- A capability inversion occurs when the person in charge of an effort is far less knowledgeable about the work involved or its purpose than are the people doing that work. In capability inversions, the Dunning-Kruger effect can intensify group dysfunction, sometimes severely disrupting the effort. Available here and by RSS on June 3.
- And on June 10: They Don't Reply to My Email
- Ever have the experience of sending an email message to someone, asking for information or approval or whatever, and then waiting for a response that comes only too late? Maybe your correspondent is an evil loser, but maybe not. Maybe the problem is in your message. Available here and by RSS on June 10.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people 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.