Much collaboration today takes place between people who are unable to converse freely or conveniently. Because people are so busy, and so often separated by multiple time zones, the time required for a response to a question can be very frustrating. This is the long-loop conversational environment. Even a simple question can yield only another question in response. For instance, the first response to "When do you think you'll finish planting the rose bed?" might be, "Which rose bed do you mean?"
The trouble arises because the customary patterns of real time conversation are incompatible with the long-loop environment. Here are some effective tactics for asking questions in the long-loop environment.
- Be ridiculously specific
- Specificity reduces the likelihood that the responder will need further clarification. Avoid pronouns and generic terms such as "the rose bed" — instead, say, "Rose bed 3G on the south lawn."
- But specificity entails risk. For instance, in the question above, if the asker meant to type "3G" but accidentally typed "3H," specificity would have resulted in at least one otherwise unnecessary loop traversal. Specific questions must be accurate. Proofread them twice.
- Ask structured compound questions
- In a real time conversation we can ask a series of questions, using each response to frame the next question. That approach is fastest in the real time environment because it avoids the clutter of unnecessary or poorly framed questions. But in the long-loop environment it can be maddeningly slow.
- A structured compound question is actually a set of related questions, connected by a logical framework. An example: "If the answer to A is X, then I would ask B. If the answer to A is Y, then I would ask C. If the answer to A is anything else, then I would ask D." Asking structured compound questions can reduce the number of loop traversals.
- Explain why you need to know
- If you're Trouble arises because the customary
patterns of real time conversation
are incompatible with the
long-loop environmentasking a question, describe in detail the consequences of not knowing the answer. Motivate your correspondent to respond fully, accurately, and soon.
- When the responder knows why you're asking, a wonderful thing sometimes happens. Suppose the asker is confused about something, and suppose that the asker's explanation of the need for the answer exposes that confusion. The responder might then be able to untangle the confusion. The time saved in this way might be far more than one or two loop traversals. The confusion avoided might have been much, much more expensive.
Discuss these methods with your correspondents before using them. Questions like these can seem strange, or even insulting, to anyone who hasn't seen their like before. And disrupted relationships can be even more costly than a few loop traversals. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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For more suggestions for the long-loop environment, see "Long-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog," Point Lookout for June 24, 2009; and "Long-Loop Conversations: Anticipation," Point Lookout for August 12, 2009.
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Interviewing the Willing: Strategy
- At times, we need information from each other. For example, we want to learn about how someone approached
a similar problem, or we must interview someone about system requirements. Yet, even when the source
is willing, we sometimes fail to expose critical facts. How can we elicit information from the willing
- When You Aren't Supposed to Say: II
- Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive
than that. Sometimes people who try to extract that information use techniques based on misdirection.
Here are some of them.
- Dismissive Gestures: II
- In the modern organization, since direct verbal insults are considered "over the line," we've
developed a variety of alternatives, including a class I call "dismissive gestures." They
hurt personally, and they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part II of a little catalog
of dismissive gestures.
- Communication Templates: II
- Communication templates are patterns that are so widely used that once identified, nearly everyone recognizes
them. In this Part II we consider some of the more toxic — less innocuous — communication
- Conceptual Mondegreens
- When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause
can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen.
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- When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.
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- 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.