In the first part of this series about long-loop conversations in the context of virtual teams, we explored asking questions that can reduce the number of exchanges required to get definitive responses. In this part, we examine ways to clear the fog — the confusions, blind spots and omissions that impede our way to clarity.
Understanding how fog forms and persists in the long-loop environment is helpful in itself. Here are three practices that tend to create or preserve fog.
- Fear of offending others
- Sometimes people withhold questions because they fear that asking them could offend others. Askers fear that their questions might seem too fundamental or too obvious. Sometimes they've asked the question before, but they weren't satisfied with the response; sometimes the asking led to tension.
- Fear of self-disclosure
- At times, we withhold comments or questions that could be helpful to the collaboration, but which also risk disclosing our own ignorance, shortcomings, or past errors. Unless the other collaborators raise the topic, this withholding can bar the group from exploring the issue.
- Defenses and defensive attacks
- When we bristle in response to others' comments, we signal that the conversation has crossed into unacceptability. If the topic is relevant to the collaboration, defensiveness and defensive attacks can prevent the collaborators from investigating relevant and important territory.
Here are four questions we can use to clear the fog, even if we're unaware of its existence.
- What should I be asking you that I haven't asked yet?
- The answer to this question might expose the obvious: questions you never thought to ask. But if the responder tells you that you haven't asked a question, and you feel that you have, this exchange might expose questions asked ineffectively, or the asker's misunderstanding or ignoring of a question you did ask.
- Do you think I might be confused about anything? If so, what?
- This question gives the responder permission to suggest that the asker might be confused. The responder might not accept the offer, but making the offer enhances the chance that the responder might surface new information.
- What questions haven't you asked yet?
- Responders usually Sometimes people withhold
questions because they fear
that asking them could
offend othersknow that they can ask questions. But this question invites responders to focus on questions they've withheld. Those questions are often the most productive.
- Are there any risks we haven't considered?
- Risks that haven't been mentioned can be especially fruitful, because they often include the so-called "elephants in the room." This question gives people license to discuss those elephants.
These questions help even when you don't know you need help. They work by encouraging participants to seek unpleasant information, or to reveal information they might be withholding. But they depend for their effectiveness on a commitment by the asker not to be offended, and a commitment by the responder to be honest and forthright. Have I left anything out? First in this series Next in this series Top Next Issue
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For more suggestions for the long-loop environment, "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:
- Decision-Making and the Straw Man
- 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.
- The Fine Art of Quibbling
- We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares
of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can
be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
- Asking Clarifying Questions
- In a job interview, the interviewer asks you a question. You're unsure how to answer. You can blunder
ahead, or you can ask a clarifying question. What is a clarifying question, and when is it helpful to ask one?
- Social Transactions: We're Doing It My Way
- We have choices about how we conduct social transactions — greetings, partings, opening doors,
and so on. Some transactions require that we collaborate with others. In social transactions, how do
we decide whose preferences rule?
- Chronic Peer Interrupters: III
- People who habitually interrupt others in meetings must be fairly common, because I'm often asked about
what to do about them. And you can find lots of tips on the Web, too. Some tips work well, some generally
don't. Here are my thoughts about four more.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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