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:
- You and I
- In tense discussions, the language we use often contributes to the tension. If we can transform the
statements we make about each other into statements about ourselves, we can eliminate an important source
of tension and stress.
- If Only I Had Known: I
- Have you ever regretted saying something that you wouldn't have said if only you had known just one
more little fact? Yeah, me too. We all have. Here are some tips for dealing with this sticky situation.
- Masked Messages
- Sometimes what we say to each other isn't what we really mean. We mask the messages, or we form them
into what are usually positive structures, to make them appear to be something less malicious than they
are. Here are some examples of masked messages.
- Ethical Debate at Work: I
- When we decide issues at work on any basis other than the merits, we elevate the chances of making bad
decisions. Here are some guidelines for ethical debate.
- Conversation Irritants: II
- Workplace conversation is difficult enough, because of stress, time pressure, and the complexity of
our discussions. But it's even more vexing when people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous.
Here's Part II of a small collection of their techniques.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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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.