Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 17;   April 27, 2005: Questioning Questions

Questioning Questions

by

In meetings and other workplace discussions, questioning is a common form of conversational contribution. Questions can be expensive, disruptive, and counterproductive. For most exchanges, there is a better way.

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.

A tournament"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.

One-upsmanship
We're hoping to catch somebody "not knowing" or better yet, being wrong.
Stalling
Sometimes we ask questions
when we don't really need
the answers
We want to keep everyone occupied while we think things through, or until word on an important issue arrives by instant message.
Hogging
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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Email Antics: IV  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

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The phrase "comfort zone" is a metaphor that can distort how we think about situations in which we feel comfortable and confident. Here are four examples illustrating how the metaphor distorts our thinking.
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Email exchanges are notorious for exposing groups to battles that would never occur in face-to-face conversation. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing dialog very difficult. Here's Part II of an exploration of some of those risks.
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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.

See also Effective Communication at Work, Conflict Management and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A well-festooned utility poleComing June 26: Additive bias…or Not: I
When we alter existing systems to enhance them, we tend to favor adding components even when subtracting might be better. This effect has been attributed to a cognitive bias known as additive bias. But other forces more important might be afoot. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceAnd on July 3: Additive bias…Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

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