The second installment in my review of thoughtful communication tools gleaned from Stop Talking Start Communicating. Find installment no. 1 here.
The ease with which we can turn to the Internet to answer virtually any question we ask lulls us into thinking that questions are simple and that answers exist to meet our needs.
-Geoffrey Tumlin, Stop Talking Start Communicating
Questions are a powerful communication tool. Used effectively, they both encourage meaningful communication and accomplish our communication goals. We use questions to glean information, convey meaning, flatter, fluster, and otherwise fuel communication. Sometimes effectively, sometimes not so much. They are not necessarily simple, and they don’t exist solely to meet our needs.
Much in the same way that effective listening works, we gain incredible communication opportunities by engaging in effective questioning, as opposed to faulty questioning.
Examples of faulty questions? Tumlin offers the following:
Rhetorical or unanswerable questions. These are the kind of questions that can’t really be answered. So why do we ask them? They can leave the questioned person feeling trapped, perceiving an obligation to respond but having no response to offer.
Unwanted questions. This is simple. Pay attention to the person you’re communicating with. Look for verbal cues that the direction of your questioning verges on TMI. Shuffling feet? Avoidance mannerisms? Stop.
Leading questions. We learned this one in law school. Leading questions suggest the “correct” answer. They don’t generally encourage a meaningful exchange, however.
Loaded questions. Tumlin describes these as “poorly disguised criticisms that don’t lead to productive conversations.” Often posed to reveal the other’s stupid/wrong/weak position (as viewed by the questioner), they do the opposite of promoting communication. And they make you look like an ass.
Interrogating questions. These are questions designed to pin blame. They trigger negative responses, which stifles meaningful dialogue. See reference to looking like an ass, above.
Identity questions. These go to the heart of someone’s identity — work, family, religion. Tumlin cautions to be careful in asking identity questions, because the subject matter can be fraught and must be approached carefully.
Good questions facilitate understanding, lubricate conversations, and promote learning. They bring people together, while faulty questions push people apart and can lead to communication breakdowns.
– Geoffrey Tumlin
What to do if you’re the victim of faulty questions? Be thoughtful in your response, to avoid escalating the conversation. Often clarification of the asker’s intent can get things back on track. Give the faulty questioner time to self-correct.
If you improve your questions, you’ll improve your relationships. And if you improve your relationships, you’ll improve your life. That’s a powerful incentive to upgrade your questions.
– Geoffrey Tumlin
How to improve your questions? Tumlin offers seven tips:
- Clarify your intent: “The perception of a meaningful underlying intent is vital to effective questioning.”
- Get and give permission for questioning, which gives people a sense of control over the conversation and makes them feel safe in responding.
- Ask open questions whenever possible. This gives the responding person the freedom to answer fully, without shutting off helpful information. Yes/no questions are closed. Open questions are broad and thus seek broad responses.
- Be polite. Say please.
- Let people talk. Don’t sabotage your good questions by fearing silence, or by shutting people off from fully answering.
- Use closed questions prudently. Generally helpful for obtaining simple information, relegate them to this purpose.
- Use nudges liberally. Tumlin describes nudges as “stand-alone phrases like tell me more, I see, and go on, which are often to maintain the smooth flow of information.” They encourage the other to speak.
It’s so obvious I hesitate to even point it out, but I will. Good questioning is a crucial skill for a lawyer. Skillful communication, even at the interpersonal level, requires planning — especially when a client’s matter is at stake. Planning your questions, and being mindful of avoiding faulty questions, are habits well worth forming.