3.7 Encouraging Questions And Dealing With Them Carefully

One of the laws of human nature is that behaviour that’s rewarded will be repeated, while behaviour that’s ignored will fade away. So it is with questions and other forms of enquiry. If you deal with them in a perfunctory way, as if they are an irritation, then the other person’s questions will soon dry up, diminishing the chances of a good dialogue taking place. The trick is to treat questions as valuable opportunities to improve clarity and develop two-way communication.

a. Welcoming rather than resenting questions

Suppose you’re talking with Simon, a colleague at work, about how an order for an important customer, Doreen Fisher, was delivered late. You suggest that a reassuring phone call from Simon will go a long way towards calming Doreen down.

Simon asks you, “So how big was her order?”

How you deal with Simon’s question depends on how you perceive it. If you regard it as a potentially helpful intervention, you welcome it. In this case you might say, “Actually it wasn’t a particularly big order this time, but over the years she’s been one of our most valuable and loyal customers. I think she deserves some special treatment.”

On the other hand, if you see Simon’s question as an unhelpful interruption to the flow of the conversation, you resent it. In this case, you response might be very different. “Simon, it doesn’t matter how big the order was. That’s not the important issue!”

By and large, it’s a good policy to welcome questions since they provide you with the opportunity to further inform the Understander and clear up any confusion he, or she, may experiencing.

How you respond to questions can have profound effect on the course of the conversation. If the other person sees that you don’t welcome questions, they’ll think twice about asking any more. And that’s not good for clarity or dialogue.

b. Dealing with counter-productive questions

Not all questions are straightforward to deal with. Here are some ideas on how to deal with more difficult types of question.

Questions that are opinions in disguise

Lots of questions are not really questions at all but opinions in disguise. Suppose Simon asks, “Do you really think Doreen Smith deserves this kind of kid-glove treatment?” That’s not really a question but Simon’s veiled way of saying, “I don’t think the situation warrants this kind of response.”

One way of dealing with this situation is to rephrase the question so that the real meaning is revealed. So you might say back to Simon. “You think that calling her up is going over the top.” This provides an opportunity to get into dialogue about Simon’s point of view.

Confusing or compound questions

Some people are in the habit of asking elaborate, confusing questions. For example, Simon might have asked. “Isn’t the computer system supposed to catch these errors? Aren’t we supposed to have eliminated these errors? Why does our department always have to pick up the pieces and do the dirty work?”

Faced with a multi-part, confusing question like this, you have a couple of choices. One option is to break the question down and deal with it, item by item. You might say, “Okay. Well, let me deal with the computer system first …”

Another option is dig a bit deeper and get at where the question was coming from.

This time you might say, “It sounds like you think we shouldn’t handling this complaint at all. Is that right?” The response sets up the opportunity to have a dialogue about where the responsibility should lie, in Simon’s opinion.

Wrong timing

Sometimes, questions come at the wrong time — from your point of view, at least, if not from the questioner’s. Let’s suppose Simon asks, “Why did the order get delayed in the first place?” This is a topic you want to deal with, but later on, after you’ve arranged for Simon to make the call to the customer.

A thoughtful response might be. “That’s a good question, but can we deal with it in a minute, after we’ve sorted out how to handle the Doreen Smith situation?”

Being interrogated

Some people are in the habit of asking questions in the manner of a prosecuting counsel, or even an interrogator. They ask one question after another, nailing you to the wall, as if trying to trap or trick you.

Behaviour like this is counter productive for successful dialogue, so if it persists, take a time-out and say something like, “Can we stop just for a few moments? I’m finding your style of asking questions difficult to deal with. It feels like I’m under attack …”

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