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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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Email Antics: III
- Nearly everyone complains that email is a time waster. Yet much of the problem results from our own
actions. Here's Part III of a little catalog of things we do that help waste our time.
- Changing the Subject: II
- Sometimes, in conversation, we must change the subject, but we also do it to dominate, manipulate, or
assert power. Subject changing — and controlling its use — can be important political skills.
- Management Debt: II
- As with technical debt, we incur management debt when we make choices that carry with them recurring
costs. How can we quantify management debt?
- Embolalia and Stuff Like That: II
- Continuing our exploration of embolalia — filler syllables, filler words, and filler phrases —
let us examine the more complex forms. Some of them are so complex that they appear to be actual content,
even when what they contain is little more than "um."
- How We Waste Time: I
- Time is the one workplace resource that's evenly distributed. Everyone gets exactly the same share,
but some use it more wisely than others. Here's Part I of a little catalog of ways we waste time.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
- Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
- And on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
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