In my last post, I considered Wisdom of Crowds as a way to increase team strength from a macro perspective. On the other hand, communication with each person is also very important to improve team performance. No matter how many structural improvements you make, if you do not communicate well with each person, it does not seem to lead to good results.
In that communication, when I work as a PM or team manager, there are so many situations where I ask questions. I ask a variety of questions in different situations, such as to learn something, to get an opinion, or to check on a situation. Nonetheless, I am always nervous when I ask questions. I am not very used to it. Why is that? The reason is that asking a question itself can easily create a pressure, depending on how I ask the question, and then affect the quality of communication, which in turn greatly affects the relationship beyond that.
Therefore, I am very careful when I ask a question about something and I make up my words very carefully. Especially if it is an online chat. Of course, the specific question will naturally vary depending on the content and the situation. However, regardless of the situation or content of the question, I think there is something fundamentally important. I would like to write about that.
Tell the intent of the question at first
I see this practiced very often by people who are aware of it. For example, when checking on the progress of a project, whether you just want to know, whether you want to know in order to report to someone, whether you are aware that something doesn’t seem to be going well and want to be sure, whether you already have an idea for improvement that might be useful, etc., the context of the question varies. The background of the question can vary.
On the other hand, if you simply ask, “What is the progress of the project?” the person being asked the question will not know from what perspective to answer. To avoid this ambiguity, when asking a question, I discuss the intent of the question and the assumptions I will make after hearing the answer “before asking the question”. This simplifies the conversation and avoids questions and answers like “finding out each other’s real intentions”.
This is also true when you are on the receiving end of a question. As a matter of course, if you are unsure of the intent of a question, you should check the intent before answering. It may be even better to assume the intent of the question, such as “If this is the intent, then the answer is this way,” or “If this is a different intent, then the answer is that way,” and then present the answers to each assumption as a choice.
Asking and answering questions without sharing the intent of the question can create a gap where you do not hear what you wanted to hear or communicate what you wanted to communicate. And if the gap is left unresolved, it will hinder the creation of a trusting relationship. It is very basic, but in any situation, it is a good idea to politely share the purpose and intent of the question.
But on the other hand, no matter how carefully you share the intent of the question, in many cases the question can create a certain pressure. In the case of a question about the status of an earlier project, it is an obsession with the person answering: “I’m sure you want me to answer that the project is going well.” This is the sense of pressure. Sharing the purpose of the question seems to have the effect of reducing gaps in understanding, but not so much of reducing the sense of pressure. Therefore, we take a different approach to reducing the sense of pressure.
Direct the question to things, not to the person
Often I see people practicing this. The structure is to direct questions to things and think about them together. For example, instead of “How is the project progressing?” instead of “How do you think the project is progressing?” Instead of directing the question at the person, they direct the question at the thing.
This method is very easy to put into practice because it requires only a slight change in word choice to change the impression. In the previous example, the question is simply changed from “How is it?” to “What do you think about it?” It is a small thing, but by directing the question to things rather than the person, you can expect to reduce the psychological pressure to some extent.
However, if the person you are talking to is a stakeholder in the thing, it is up to the person to determine whether or not it is effective to direct questions to the thing. This is because it is quite difficult to put things in an objective position. If the person is used to separating “things” from “himself/herself,” it can be effective, but if that is difficult, it is difficult to avoid the feeling of being “attacked. Also, directing the question indirectly at the thing may sound like a indirect “sarcasm”.
In other words, while the wording is easy to create, it is a risky method that can have negative effects if used in the wrong situation. Therefore, unexpectedly, there are not many situations in which it can be used effectively. So, let me consider a different method.
Direct the question to yourself
I do not see many people practicing this. I, on the other hand, often do this method consciously. The way I do this is to direct the question of what I want to confirm with the person to myself, not to them. In other words, instead of asking the other person about the content, I tell them my assumptions and then ask them to point out whether my understanding is correct and what is different.
Continuing to use the previous example, when asking about the progress of a project, instead of asking the person to confirm progress, you could say, for example, “I feel like we’re about a week behind in my assumptions, and the reason I think that is…. I think this is the kind of idea we might have to try to solve this, what do you think about this understanding and idea?” And so on. By making the question a question about your own understanding, rather than directed at the person you are asking, you change the direction of the question to you.
The good thing about this method is that the question is directed to you, which more certainly reduces the pressure they feel. As is often said, asking “Why?” is a very strong pressure. However, it is not as easy as saying, “I think this is the reason. Am I right?” If the answer is “yes”, the answer will be “yes”, and if the answer is wrong, the answer will be “no, actually, this is the reason that..”. In other words, instead of answering the question, they should be teaching you. This will reduce the pressure on the respondent to answer the question, who may feel judged.
Another benefit from a different accuracy perspective is that talking about what you assume and understand beforehand will help the person understand the extent of your understanding. By communicating your understanding of the question to the partner in advance, it is easier for the person to confirm that the content of the answer matches the questioner’s expectations. If the person understands your expectations, they will naturally be more likely to give you an answer from the perspective you expect.
On the other hand, there are difficulties. If you want to talk about your own assumptions, you need to be observant on a daily basis. You cannot talk about assumptions if you do not know anything about them. You need to imagine what is happening based on daily communication, information obtained, and changes in the atmosphere. Without assumptions, it becomes very difficult to direct questions to yourself. Thus, it is not as easy as it may seem to direct questions to yourself. Conversely, if you can have a conversation in which you direct the questions to yourself, it seems to confirm that you are making appropriate observations.
However, it is not necessary that the assumptions you make be 100% correct. If they are wrong, you can simply ask them to correct them, so it is perfectly functional even if they are not correct. In fact, it is sometimes better to be wrong occasionally so that the conversation is less pressure. Of course, you must avoid a situation where you are so wrong or constantly wrong that the person is hesitant to point it out.
In summary, directing questions to oneself is a less risky way to remove unnecessary pressure, but it is also more difficult because it tests your ability to observe and understand. At the beginning of this article, I said that I get nervous when I ask questions because I often ask questions in this pattern, and I am always nervous about whether my assumptions are too far off the mark.
And this method is very effective in many situations, especially when talking to a person with whom you do not yet have a trusting relationship. The difficulty of coming up with assumptions is even higher when the relationship of trust is still very weak, since most of the time you don’t have much information, but you often manage to find assumptions based on little information or past patterns.
At the end
I have introduced three ways to ask questions that avoid pressure.
1. Tell the intent of the question at first
2. Direct the question to things, not to the person
3. Direct the question to yourself
The first was very basic, the second was easy but risky and required consideration of the situation in which it would be used, and the third was effective but more difficult.
Of course, the purpose of paying attention to the way you ask questions is to get them to tell it as it is as much as possible. If there is a relationship of trust and it is perfectly acceptable to ask straightforwardly, it is quicker to omit redundant expressions and ask questions in a direct way, such as “Why?” If I choose my words carefully when asking questions, I am sometimes asked to be more straightforward. If they say so, I feel comfortable because I can ask straight questions without hesitation.
On the other hand, however, it is also true that once the pressure is given, it does not go away. Therefore, if there is even the slightest uncertainty, make the question as polite as possible, and if the person feels troublesome, gradually change to more direct expressions. I think it is better to take steps in this way, so that the quality of communication can be higher without risk.
Asking questions is a regular, everyday act that I do countless times. Therefore, it seems to me that the accumulation of small differences can have a significant impact on the performance of a team. I would like to be even more careful myself.