Good questioning and good listening are two sides of the same coin: respectful communication.
Choosing the right words and setting the right tone are important in any difficult communication. When you are dealing with delicate matters at work, the goal should be to set the stage for discussion, not for interrogation. It is always important to talk with people not at them.
Take a deep breath
If emotions are running high with a co-worker, supervisor, or employee, the best thing to do is take some emotion out of the situation. Often, that means keeping calm and letting the other person tell their side of the story. If you find yourself in an emotional situation at work:
- You might find it's effective to say nothing at all. You don't have to agree. But you can show you hear the other person by saying things like "I get that" or "I understand."
- Stay away from statements like "calm down" or "You need to understand that…." They will make the other person feel judged.
- Try not to frame the issue as "who is right and who is wrong." Frame it as a respectful discussion where everyone's point of view matters.
- Ask questions instead of making statements.
Let questions open doors, not close them
The way we ask questions usually affects how people answer—or whether they answer at all. Open-ended questions can be helpful in stressful situations. Open-ended questions usually:
- Start with who, what, where, when, why, and how, or include phrases like "Could you help me understand," "explain to me," "expand for me"
- Usually require more than a yes or no answer
Here are some examples of open-ended questions:
- What would you like to see happen in this situation?
- What do you want us to do to help you?
- How do you think things are going here?
Open-ended questions give the other person some leeway about how to respond. Even so, they can still cause people to feel threatened or targeted in a tense moment. Consider how the other person might feel if you asked "Why did you say that?" or "Why didn't you do that?" Although the questions are open-ended, you can still soften them like this:
- "Could you help me understand why you said that?"
- "What do you think about trying it this way in the future?"
Avoid leading questions
Leading questions are ones such as "Don't you think I have a valid point?" They make it clear to the other person that you expect a specific answer—in other words, that you expect them to agree with you. They also encourage "yes" or "no" answers, which don't help move the discussion forward.
Rather than back people into a corner, provide them with an "out"—for example, "What's your idea or suggestion?" That question is less likely to result in a yes or no response and might even open the door to new ideas.
Take questions one at a time
Avoid the temptation to become a verbal machine gun. Rapid-fire questions make you sound hostile and will probably result in some of the questions (and answers) getting lost.
Reflect, repeat, rephrase
Once you get a reply to your question, you might want to restate or rephrase the other person's answer. You can use a phrase such as:
- "Could you confirm that I've understood you correctly?"
- "I think I hear you saying..."
- "So, what you're saying is...?"
By rephrasing you avoid misunderstandings. You also show others that you are a good listener and you care.
Words that affirm the other person's point of view can help bridge differences.
Signs of a healthy conversation
The words you use and the questions you ask matter. By approaching them thoughtfully, you can help turn a conflict into a healthy conversation.
A healthy conversation is two-sided—sometimes we talk and sometimes we listen. It is also balanced. In other words, everyone participates. You need to express your information and interests while questioning, reflecting, repeating, and rephrasing what the other person is saying to you.