Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 25;   June 21, 2023: Asking Burning Questions

Asking Burning Questions


When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks.
A meeting of a small team working to resolve a serious matter

A meeting of a small team working to resolve a serious matter. Meetings of this size (or smaller) are probably best for raising questions that have far-reaching consequences. Their small size limits the risk of confusing innocent questions with attacks. In a small meeting, even if a question is taken as an attack, the small group has a better chance of sorting out the confusion.

From time to time, we recognize that our understanding of an issue has been incomplete, confused, or just plain wrong. And we suddenly realize that repairing our understanding is an urgent matter. When this happens in a meeting, a common approach is to ask a question. Usually, the person we ask is the person who was speaking at the time of our realization, but sometimes we pose the question to the meeting as a whole.

A much safer approach is to wait for a more private moment with someone whose expertise you respect and trust. But the sense of urgency is a demanding master, one that's difficult to resist. To help you resist, this post explores some of the more unpleasant consequences of asking burning questions in meetings.

Asking burning questions can be risky

Especially for questions that occur to you during the meeting, asking the burning question is a risky maneuver. Here are two examples of the risks.

The consequences of faulty understanding can be far-reaching
When you realize that your mastery of an issue is in doubt, the consequences can be difficult to predict. For example, you might not recognize that the answer to your burning question is obvious. Or you might not recognize that asking the question can offend someone in the meeting for reasons unknown to you. Most important, the void in your knowledge that causes you to ask the question can also limit your ability to understand the consequences of asking the question.
Your question might seem to be an attack
Questioning the Asking the burning, fundamental question
in a meeting, when it occurs to you, is a
risky maneuver. It can seem to others to
be an attack on the group's competence.
group's approach can be difficult to distinguish from questioning the group's competence. Two factors enhance this risk. First, the closer your question is to the foundation of the group's approach, the more difficulty the group might have interpreting your question correctly. Second, the more difficult it is for the group to alter its current approach, the more difficulty its members might have recognizing that you have asked your question in good faith.

These risks, and others, can be even more dangerous if you have a history of questioning the group's approach in its current effort, or other efforts. People might interpret your questions not as a good-faith effort to seek clarification, but as one more link in a long chain of attacks.

Silence might not be a safe option

If the essence of your question is within your area of responsibility, withholding your question can be as risky as asking it. The risk materializes if you have kept your counsel, and then at some point in the future, unwelcome events occur that could have been prevented or foreseen if you had raised the issue you've recognized. If the group is relying on you for expertise in a given domain, and if it turns out that you didn't alert the group to a difficulty within that domain, then, as they say, you would be in deep yogurt.

Instead of trying to find a quiet place to hide while withholding your question, seek instead a safer way to put your question to the group.

How to manage the risk of asking

Fortunately, tactics are available for surfacing your burning question while managing these risks.

Let go of seeking acknowledgement
Seeking acknowledgment of the contribution you make by asking the question is likely to enhance the risk you face. Appearing to have greater interest in enhancing your stature than you have in helping the group can cause group members to question your motives.
Seek safety in numbers
Being the only member of the group with an interest in your question can lead to others doubting your sincerity or questioning your expertise. If you can, raise your question privately to others before the meeting. You're then more likely to find support in the form of, "Yes, I wondered about that too." In the best case, someone else might raise the question in the meeting before you do.
Take baby steps
The fundamental nature of the question, and its far-reaching consequences, are the sources of the risks associated with asking it. To limit the effects, try asking questions that are related, but which have narrower focus and less dramatic consequences. The group then has a chance to approach the more daunting issue gradually. Some of them might even make the connection to the burning, larger question on their own, becoming your allies in curiosity. By leaving some space for others to contribute, you enable others to share in owning the question.

Last words

Just as silence is not a safe option, waiting is also risky, because the period of waiting before you act is indistinguishable from silence. If you decide not to reveal your question before or during the meeting, consider disclosing it privately afterwards to select group members at the earliest possible moment. That approach is a compromise that provides an opportunity for others to help guide broader disclosure. As such, it mitigates some risk, but it's clearly less desirable than full openness. Go to top Top  Next issue: Toxic Disrupters: Responses  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

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Some people tend to disrupt meetings. Their motives vary, but they use techniques drawn from a limited collection. Examples: they violate norms, demand attention, mess with the agenda, and sow distrust. Response begins with recognizing their tactics.

See also Effective Meetings and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A well-festooned utility poleComing June 26: Additive bias…or Not: I
When we alter existing systems to enhance them, we tend to favor adding components even when subtracting might be better. This effect has been attributed to a cognitive bias known as additive bias. But other forces more important might be afoot. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceAnd on July 3: Additive bias…Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

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