It’s common knowledge that the art of effective communication lies in our ability to ask questions and listen. I’m sure I didn’t just tell you something you haven’t heard before, but why is it so many people struggle with this simple concept?
For years, I’ve tried to reinforce the necessity of asking questions. I’ve gone so far as to carry tape recorders to my seminars just to prove to people that they are not asking as many questions as they may think. The exercise is this: I ask people to pair up, and each take five minutes trying to sell something to each other. I tell them that it is merely an exercise to monitor their particular communication style, but it is actually an exercise in counting the number of questions the other is asking.
When the exercise has been completed, we talk about the importance of asking questions. The students go back and count the number of statements versus the number of questions and return with a ratio.
Ideally, I’m hoping for a 1:1 ratio, but in reality, anything around three statements for every question or under is acceptable. That ratio allows us to track the percentage of time those we are communicating with are talking versus the percentage of time we are talking.
I’ve come to realize that although the exercise provides some strong indicators of success, the exercise is flawed for two reasons. First, too many questions may be worse than no questions at all. There are those individuals who proudly announce that they have asked 30 questions. That’s thirty questions… in five minutes! Sounds pretty intense to me. Was that a conversation or an interrogation? We’re not using questions as a weapon; merely a way to engage others in conversation. A ratio like this indicates the overuse of questions that require a “yes” or “no” response, or what is commonly referred to as closed questions. Imagine a conversation that went like this:
“Hi. It’s nice to finally meet you. Do you like this restaurant?”
“Are you hungry?”
“Yes, uh, yes I am.”
“Isn’t the weather warm this time of year?”
“Oh yes, uh, it’s really warm!”
We could let a conversation like that continue painfully, and it would score well in our statements versus questions ratio, but it could hardly be viewed as an effective conversation. Closed questions might be a great way to confirm information, or to test understanding, but it is not the way to warm up a conversation.
But the bigger problem seems to affect those who are actually doing far better than the ratio might indicate. We want to make it comfortable for the other person to respond to our questions. Questions that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no” are referred to as open questions, and they are typically used to help open up a more reserved individual, or to help others to expand on the information being provided. Early in a conversation, open questions are wonderful when the conversation has the potential to be the most awkward. Imagine a conversation that goes like this:
“Hi. It’s nice to finally meet you. Everyone has a story. I’d love to hear yours.”
“Yes… I mean, well, it’s funny that I’m even here to today. I never thought I’d leave my hometown, but as they say, sometimes you don’t find your career; it finds you. I was working for a small company when one day…”
Now, let’s go back to that classic exercise to measure communication effectiveness that counts the number of questions being asked. With the use of multiple open questions, that classic ratio might be somewhat unbalanced, but is the conversation itself unbalanced? The answer is no, and that’s why I have become such a big fan of chess clocks.
A typical chess clock has two buttons and two clocks. When these clocks are used to measure a conversation, I have students use one clock to measure the amount of time they are talking and the other to measure the amount of time the other person is talking. At the end of a role-play, the students are left with a much more accurate measurement of who is doing most of the talking. Now a 1:1 time ratio really means something!
How do you keep your questions open, and thereby allow others to speak freely? If you start a sentence with words like “tell, describe, what, why, and how,” your questions will be open. On the flipside, if you start your sentences with words like “do, are, is, if, or can,” your questions will be closed, and the responses will be choppy and short.
Mark Twain once said:
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ‘tis the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening.”
All you really need to do is focus on the first word out of your mouth and you’ll not only be using the right word, but you’ll also be building the right question. Who knew such a simple device could provide such an accurate indicator of how well we communicate with others?