Love and Romance / Relationships

Are Your Questions Sabotaging Your Relationships?

"Are Your Questions Sabotaging Your Relationships?"Most people don’t put much thought into the questions they ask—a mistake that can cause relationships to deteriorate and misunderstandings to abound. Geoffrey Tumlin shares seven tips to help you become a better questioner—and as a result, build better, more productive relationships at work and at home.

It’s usually not hard to pinpoint the moment when a conversation goes south. Often, that downward spiral begins with a question. Maybe you ask a colleague, “Why did you format the report like this?” Or you ask your spouse, “Are your parents coming to dinner again?” Or you ask a stranger on the bus, “Could you move over?” These questions—and many others—may have seemed innocent when they were coming out of your mouth. But fail to provide context, emphasize the wrong word, or just forget to add “please,” and you’re suddenly in hot water.

Yes, questions can be tricky territory. The colleague in the scenario above gets defensive, the spouse assumes you hate her parents, and the stranger hears, “You’re taking up too much space, fatso!” Communication consultant Geoffrey Tumlin says abrupt questions and the unanticipated responses they trigger are a peril of the times we live in.

“Consider the ease with which we can turn to the Internet to answer virtually any question,” says Tumlin, author of the new book Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. “It lulls us into thinking that questions are simple and that answers exist to meet our needs.

“Plus, it’s not always easy to divine another person’s intent behind a face-to-face query—and the task is that much harder in the digital age, where we so often lack visual cues and the ability to gather immediate feedback,” he adds. “And the frantic pace of life today just isn’t conducive to thoughtfulness or deliberation, which are two prerequisites of effective questioning.”

Tumlin says questioning is a higher-order communication skill that we haven’t taken seriously for centuries. The days of Socrates masterfully using questions to lead a conversation are long past. Yet even in 2014 we can make an effort to improve our questioning skills—and the first step is to curb our tendency to ask faulty questions.

“In general, faulty questions are those we ask to indulge our personal, ‘I-based’ cravings to get an answer, to hammer home a point, or to satisfy a narrow, personal curiosity,” Tumlin explains. “Whether they’re critical, tactless, unwanted, offensive, embarrassing, intrusive, or loaded, these types of questions are likely to stifle dialogue and can cause relationships to deteriorate.”

Instead, he says, focus on what you can learn from or about another person. This “we-based” perspective, which reflects a broad curiosity about the person or topic you’re discussing, will fuel more meaningful conversations and develop richer relationships.

Here, Tumlin shares seven specific tips to help you improve your questions:

Clarify your intent. The inimitable Yogi Berra once said, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going because you might not get there.” Once you untangle that quote, you’ll have to admit that Yogi was right. It’s especially important to know where you’re going before you ask a question, because opening your mouth thoughtlessly can put distance between you and the other person. Think about what you’re trying to learn, as well as your motives and the possible effects of your question, before you ask it. Remember, I-based questions are often better left unasked.

“The perception of a meaningful underlying intent is vital to effective questioning,” confirms Tumlin. “If you believe you’re asking a good question but still sense uncertainty in your conversational partner, clear it up by saying something like, ‘I’m trying to figure out how we might improve our future client pitches,’ or, ‘I’d like to know more about the way you work so our collaboration can be more effective,’ or, ‘I want to learn how the Smithfield presentation went off track so we can try to win them back.’”

Get and give permission. No one likes to have their personal space invaded. When you’re asking questions, remember that personal space isn’t just physical. It can extend to others’ memories, beliefs, identities, motives, etc. Before entering these territories conversationally, don’t overlook the simple idea of asking permission: “May I ask you a question?”

Ask open questions whenever possible… If you are trying to gather information and expand your understanding, you’ll want to encourage the other person to talk more, not less. That’s why open questions, which are designed to be answered in paragraphs, not in a few words, are so helpful. They give the other person freedom to respond and help you to avoid unintentionally shutting off helpful information.

“Remember, people are busy, so when we ask questions that can be answered in a few words—when we give them the ability to take a shortcut as opposed to a more extended response—they’ll often take it,” he adds.

Here, according to Tumlin, are some of the most versatile open questions:

• What do you think?

• How do you feel about this?

• What else should I know?

• What questions can I answer?

“Additionally, you can readily construct open questions by using the phrases how did, how was, please describe, please explain, please discuss, and please tell me more,” Tumlin adds. “For example: ‘Please tell me more about your idea.’ ‘How did you feel about that?’ ‘Please discuss the Gatorville account proposal.’ ‘Please explain your conclusion in more detail.’”

…and use closed questions prudently. Despite Tumlin’s warning not to use closed questions too frequently, he admits they can be helpful in the right circumstances. Closed questions (in other words, those that can be answered in a handful of words) are easy to spot because they often start with words like who, when, where, is, or do: “Who can help us get this done?” “When is the project due?” “Where do I get more information?” “Is this the job you want?” “Do you like your boss?”

Be polite. You’ll notice that please occurs frequently in many examples and phrases above. This is pragmatic etiquette. (Yes, your mother was on the right track when she insisted that you use “please” and “thank you.”) Remember the stranger on the bus? When you asked, “Could you move over?” you got an icy glare in response and then suffered through an uncomfortable 20-minute ride. What if instead you said, “I’m sorry, could I please trouble you to move over

Let people talk. In a world filled with constant chatter—both spoken and digital—silence is a rarity, and it often makes us uncomfortable. When there’s a pause in conversation, your first impulse may be to jump into the breach and fill it with whatever words first come to mind. But especially when you’re asking important questions, do your best to tame that impulse and hold your tongue.

“People require some space to absorb information, formulate their responses, and deliver them effectively,” shares Tumlin. “So sit back and let your good questions work their magic. Don’t sabotage your questions by being afraid of silence. A pause following a good question usually signals contemplation, not consternation. If you jump in too quickly, you shortchange the process.”

Use nudges liberally. Nudges are stand-alone phrases like tell me more, I see, and go on, which are often used following an open question to maintain the smooth flow of information.

“Nudges are a simple but effective way to keep a line of inquiry active,” comments Tumlin. “They’re also a good way to let the speaker know that you are paying attention. People will almost always be willing to share more if they believe that you are receptive and interested.”

“Without a doubt, learning to ask better questions will improve your relationships at work and at home. You’ll avoid some conflicts and you’ll insert less confusion and anxiety into your conversations. Better questioning skills will reduce resistance to your queries and will help you establish more productive and meaningful dialogue.”

Geoffrey Tumlin is the author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. He is the founder and CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC, a communication consulting company; president of On-Demand Leadership, a leadership development company; and founder and board chair of Critical Skills Nonprofit, a 501(c)(3) public charity dedicated to providing communication and leadership skills training to chronically underserved populations. His writing on communication and leadership has appeared in scholarly journals, newspapers, and textbooks, including Discourse Studies, theInternational Leadership Journal, the Encyclopedia of Leadership, the Austin American-Statesman, and five editions of Professional Communication Skills.

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