Suddenly, everyone in the room felt the tension. On the surface, Harriet had asked a simple question: 'When will Marigold complete the Phoenix test suite?' It wasn't her tone; it wasn't even the question. Everyone wanted to know the answer. And it wasn't Terry's answer — he responded coolly: "Friday, we think."
Everyone was tense because of the fear that Terry might lose control, and because everyone knew that he would have provided the answer without being asked. Harriet's question was gratuitously challenging, and everyone knew the answer would be embarrassing for Terry.
Gratuitous challenges are just one of many kinds of questions that cause tension at meetings. But what makes a good question? Here are some insights to help you frame questions that advance the conversation.
- Unnecessary questions are expensive
- An unnecessary question is one that you could have answered yourself if only you had given it a little thought. Unnecessary questions derail the meeting and waste time. But the asker pays the highest price: degraded reputation. Most unnecessary questions result from not thinking, from inattentiveness, or from obsessive attempts to prove one's value.
- Off-topic questions are frustrating
- Unnecessary questions
derail the meeting
and waste time
- A question that takes the group away from its task can be frustrating to everyone, especially if the meeting is running longer than anticipated. Once people feel frustrated, work quality declines. For the rare off-topic questions that do need to be asked, either wait for the right moment, or ask for the group's permission.
- Confrontational questions lead to destructive conflict
- When you set up a confrontation, you increase the chances of destructive conflict. Whatever happens next is usually bad news, and doesn't advance the group to its goal. Some askers of confrontational questions don't realize what they're doing. Most do. To be safe, be self-effacing. Err on the side of too much courtesy and too much respect.
- Wait a bit
- When you do have a question, let it age a little. You might think of the answer, or if someone else asks it, you'll get the answer. If no one does ask, you can.
- You don't have to know the answer
- Some feel that to really score points, we must know the answers to our questions. Then, when people don't have an answer, the asker can come to the rescue. The most likely outcome of such an approach is resentment of the asker. Ask questions only when you sincerely want the answers.
- Ask brilliant questions
- Truly brilliant questions open up new vistas, or they rescue the group from blind alleys. To generate brilliant questions, isolate an assumption everyone is making, and ask yourself, 'What would happen if that weren't true?'
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming. Available here and by RSS on February 27.
- And on March 6: A Pain Scale for Meetings
- Most meetings could be shorter, less frequent, and more productive than they are. Part of the problem is that we don't realize how much we do to get in our own way. If we track the incidents of dysfunctional activity, we can use the data to spot trends and take corrective action. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
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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.