How well do you differentiate questions and statements? How will you invest in learning how to really communicate confidently and persuasively at all levels?
So somebody makes a pretty direct statement to and about you. Like: “you’re wrong!” How does that make you feel? Cornered maybe? Defensive? Challenged? It doesn’t feel good, does it?
What if they had asked it as a question instead? Like: “could it be that you’re wrong on this?” Could that have taken some of the “sting” out of it? And left some room open for you to respond more constructively?
Open and Closed Channels
Depending on the context or situation of course, I learned that making a direct statement can close communication channels down; risking the hardening of responses. They can also open you up more to being challenged, and give the other person a chance to deflect away from the point you are trying to make by “digging in” to an aspect of the statement or the way it was delivered.
Sometimes statements can come across as passing judgement or offending the other person. The same statement as a question can soften that substantially, can’t it? Questions can be less confronting and leave the door open so “nothing wrong was said”.
Transitioning from Statements to Questions
This may appear more difficult for those of you who have “high D” dominant personalities; people that are perhaps more accustomed to “telling” rather than asking. This transition is sometimes quite difficult. One way of “easing your way into it” is by ending statements with a question, you know what I mean? It can already tone the statement down, can’t it?
Also, questions allow people to come to the answers themselves which can be so much more productive in engaging them and having them “buy-in” to the issue or solution or outcome. However, after asking a question, it is important to not jump in to rescue them, but to leave them the time and space to consider the question, possible options and to come up with a better answer.
Handling “I Don’t Know”
I remember getting quite annoyed when I came up with an “I don’t know” answer to a question and my coach saying to me: “what if you did know – what might the answer be?” I remember thinking: “if I knew, I wouldn’t have said I don’t know, would I?”.
Remember my suggesting to add “yet” immediately after encountering the “I don’t know”?
Well this is a great extension to that and I have since learned that a good response to an “I don’t know” is indeed “what if you did know”.
• Firstly it prevents the “cop out” (remember “I don’t know” can be a tactic for wanting to be rescued or to prevent having to think about an answer too much).
• Secondly it forces that person to engage in having their unconscious give them some options.
I remember realizing how well that worked. It’s become second nature to me now.
A Further Stretch
A further “stretch” for this approach can be to ask them who else they know that might be able to answer this question, and after allowing them to think about that, to ask how they thought that person might answer the question.
The Diplomacy or “Face Saving” Question
I have also learned to prepare the soil for a message by saying first: “I could be totally wrong here, but I have a hunch. Is it OK to ask you a question?” Then only ask: “Could it be that….?” That leaves everything open. They can say I’m wrong, and I’ll back off (at that point in time). However, often that is all that is required without anything else being said for them to “try it on”. Or they know I’m right and they need to do something about it, without anything further needing to be said, right? Or I can follow up at a more opportune time or when I have gathered more evidence etc.
Controlling the Conversation
In Listening skills we emphasized the trust and respect that is engendered to the speaker by our intense and fully attentive listening. Here using questions we might be using that trust to allow us to wield some influence. The person asking the questions is usually controlling the conversation, right? Getting the other person to talk about what they love talking most about: themselves.
The Incisive Question
I love Nancy Kline’s book “Time to Think”. It is actually more about listening that it is about thinking. She suggests that the quality of our listening actually enhances the quality of the speakers thinking, because they know that we consider what they have to say worth listening to (trust & respect) and also that they won’t be interrupted so that they can develop their thought all the way through to the end. Quite rare, isn’t it?
One of her specialties is the “incisive question”, whereby it “cuts through all the nonsense” and “cuts to the chase”, removing all limiting assumptions and helping to get right down to the nub of the issue in question. Like: “so what is it going to take for you to xyz….?” Or: “if you knew that you could not fail, how might you approach this situation….?”
Open and Closed Questions
We all know that a “closed” question will result in a binary response, like “yes” or “no”. That it gives the respondent an “out” if they don’t want to talk.
Open questions on the other hand get people talking (often about themselves). They open up communication channels, because the speaker needs to describe something, which goes substantially beyond “yes” or “no”.
Another aspect of keeping conversation going or maintaining momentum is to answer a question with another question.
Isn’t it amazing when you ask open questions that get people talking about themselves, that they do all the talking? We usually deal with intellectually clever and intelligent people but the age old adage of “WIIFM” (What’s In It For Me?) is still as alive and well as ever, for almost everybody. Even if we don’t like to admit it, we all love talking about ourselves. It adds to our need for significance, doesn’t it?
Of course asking too many questions can end up being a little like an interrogation, right? Using your judgement and common sense should prevent that from happening. Being curious and the way we ask questions put a friendly context into the questions, provided your intent is genuine and the person feels trust and respect, and you really want to keep the conversation going. Allowing the other party to ask some questions is important as is your genuinely answering them for their benefit.
So we get the other person to do all the talking and by being a good listener, they end up considering us “a great conversationalist”. “People skills 101.
One At A Time
We can run the risk of asking too many questions, and particularly one after the other, thereby confusing the listener. Try to stick to one question at a time, and let them answer that first before following up with another.
I find this technique excellent in making sure that we cover all relevant and possible perspectives to a topic. It’s about asking the following questions:
• What will happen if we do?
• What won’t happen if we do?
• What will happen if we don’t?
• What won’t happen if we don’t?
So why don’t you try these different techniques on this month? You know, picking a few aspects and “have a go” to see how they work for you and how you can make them work with your specific personality?
So What Next?
Learning a new skill necessitates a decision to use it and practice. This is all about awareness. If you think of “the gap” and before next launching into a bold statement, you’ll have the time to think of how you might better ask it as a question.
Particularly if you are a strong, dominant personality more used to “telling”, why not try couching things more in the form of questions and see how that affects your communications with those around you?
Considered and elegant questions are part of the language of diplomacy and most certainly an integral part of any successful influencing skills. What if this could become one of your hallmarks?