ask better questions.


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:

  1. Clarify your intent: “The perception of a meaningful underlying intent is vital to effective questioning.”
  2. Get and give permission for questioning, which gives people a sense of control over the conversation and makes them feel safe in responding.
  3. 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.
  4. Be polite. Say please.
  5. Let people talk. Don’t sabotage your good questions by fearing silence, or by shutting people off from fully answering.
  6. Use closed questions prudently. Generally helpful for obtaining simple information, relegate them to this purpose.
  7. 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.

three guiding habits for communicating in the digital age.


My book of the moment is Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and Life by Geoffrey Tumlin.

I’ve been a student of communication for many, many years. I firmly believe that it is the core and crux of humanity. Good communication enables success and happiness. Exceptional communication skills pretty much guarantee them.

And this book delivers on both communication theory and concrete tools for creating exceptional communication skills relevant to all aspects of your life. I think you should read it. Pay attention. Figure out how the tools Tumlin shares can work in your life.

In the meantime, I’ll share some of Tumlin’s thoughts that resonated with me.

The book approaches communication as it’s happening in our digital age, which puts some interesting strains on us. Tumlin makes some points concrete that have been of vague but growing concern for me.

A primary one: “Today, most of us struggle to have meaningful interactions because of the power, allure, and distractions of our digital devices.” The ubiquity of platforms and devices for instantaneous communication? Making it “easier than ever to gratify our impulses with I-based personal communication and self-expression before an online audience, but harder than ever for meaningful, we-based interpersonal communication.”

My observation: the megaphone has become the symbol for communication in the digital age. One-way, broadcast out to an ever-larger audience. Fast, easy, and loud.

With this, consider that interpersonal communication is at the heart of meaningful relationship in all aspects of life. It’s the “we-based,” not the “I-based,” that creates the connections we seek to be happy.

Knowing this, Tumlin offers us three “guiding habits” to “restore effectiveness and meaning to the daily conversations that constitute our relationships and our lives.”

These habits help us to put down the megaphone.

(1) Listen like every sentence matters. All of our interactions, professional and personal, benefit when we pay close attention to the person we’re communicating with. When folks realize that they’re being heard, good stuff flows. That we acknowledge and practice excellent listening is even more important today, for as Tumlin notes, “[t]he digital revolution facilitated hypercommunication and instant self-expression, but, ironically, made it harder for anyone to listen.” Yep.

(2) Talk like every word counts. Why? Because you never know when or how the words you speak will make an incredible difference — either to the positive, or negative. Knowing this, we should treat every word we say as of potential import. My observation: this is perhaps even more deserving of our attention in the digital age, since it’s so incredibly easy to dash off a tweet, text or e-mail to an audience of thousands. Think before you speak.

(3) Act like every interaction is important. This third habit brings the first two together, requiring that we make the effort to foster authentic communication by both listening and talking with intention. Why? It’s simple, as Tumlin writes: “To convert the potential of an interaction into a productive and meaningful connection, we need to treat every opportunity for communication like it’s important.” Why this is hard today? Digital age communication is all about quick and easy modes of communication, focusing less on content and more on speed and convenience. Which compromises our ability to achieve truly interpersonal communication.

The most effective communicators I know? They’re masters of these three habits, regardless of the mode or medium of communication. They’re not perfect. But they do these three things. Consistently.

I’m challenging myself over the course of the month to hyper-focus on these habits. Already I’ve seen the positive impact (on the 9-year-old son), along with lost opportunities (as pointed out by the 12-year-old daughter). The habits aren’t yet habits for me. But slowly, with intention, I hope they will be.

Good communication = good relationships = good life.

– Geoffrey Tumlin

There’s more good stuff to mine from Stop Talking, Start Communicating. Stay tuned.