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:
- Peek-a-Boo and Leadership
- Great leaders know what to say, what not to say, and when to say or not say it, sometimes with stunning
effect. Consistently effective leadership requires superior empathy skills. Here are some things to
do to improve your empathy skills.
- Troublesome Terminology
- The terms we use at work to talk about practices, policies, and procedures are serviceable, for the
most part. But some of them carry connotations and hidden messages that undermine our larger purposes.
- When the Answer Isn't the Point: II
- Sometimes, when we ask questions, we're more interested in eliciting behavior from the person questioned,
rather than answers. Here's Part II of a set of techniques questioners use when the answer to the question
wasn't the point of asking.
- Many "Stupid" Questions Aren't
- Occasionally someone asks a question that causes us to think, "Now that's a stupid question."
Rarely is that assessment correct. Knowing what alternatives are possible can help us respond more effectively
in the moment.
- Formulaic Utterances: I
- With all due respect is an example of a category of linguistic forms known as formulaic
utterances. They differ across languages and cultures, but I speculate that their functions are
near universal. In the workplace, using them can be constructive — or not.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 6: Off-Putting and Conversational Narcissism at Work: III
- Having off-putting interactions is one of four themes of conversational narcissism. Here are seven behavioral patterns that relate to off-putting interactions and how abusers use them to control conversations. Available here and by RSS on December 6.
- And on December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways requires, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
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