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:
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technology arrives, explicitly extending the ethical code seems necessary — no matter how civil
the society. And so it is with email.
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- 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?
- 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 21: Make Suggestions Privately
- Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk. Available here and by RSS on November 21.
- And on November 28: Wacky Words of Wisdom: VI
- Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" seem valid often enough that we accept them as universal and permanent. Most aren't. Here's Part VI of a collection of widely held beliefs that can be misleading at work. Available here and by RSS on November 28.
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