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:
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- In project work, we often make decisions with incomplete information. Sometimes we narrow the options
to a few, examine their strengths and risks, and make a choice. In our deliberations, some advocates
use a technique called the Straw Man fallacy. It threatens the soundness of the decision, and its use
is very common.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
- In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
- And on July 4: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
- When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.
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