You’ve been there. You’re leading a group. You’re meeting with a coworker, an employee, your boss, or maybe even your spouse. You feel like you are speaking clearly, but the crickets are chirping in the corner. You’re met with slack jaws, slightly glazed eyes – and silence.
Maybe you find yourself meeting with people to discuss action points that need to be put in motion after your meeting is done, whether as part of a project team, employee reviews or conflict resolution. And people are nodding in agreement. Perhaps you’ve fallen back on the old standby of asking people to “repeat back what I just told you,” and they did so verbatim. Then … nothing happens. Nothing changes. Yet, you’re positive they heard you. What happened?
Worse yet, maybe it’s not silence or inactivity that you’re finding to be the problem. On the contrary, you’re thinking you would welcome some silence, because it seems like too many meetings dissolve into debate, arguing, posturing, resistance, confusion or general chaos.
I’m hopeful that you will have some real “Aha!” moments during our next few minutes together. Let me also add that, while this blog is geared toward business communication, the principles and approaches we’ll discuss here apply to interpersonal communication anywhere : with students you teach; with your friends, your spouse, your kids. In short, they are “people practices” not merely “business practices.” And as such, you may find the greatest value comes in getting through to your teen son than your business associates.
Socrates was a smart guy – so smart, in fact, that we’re still talking about him thousands of years later. His teachings and approaches have withstood the tests of time. There have been innumerable books written since the days of Socrates’ stone etchings and parchments; but while new ways of saying things can be valuable, truth doesn’t change over time. And Socrates discovered and shared some solid truth. So let me up the perceived value of what I’m about to say by adding that the great Socrates himself endorsed the advice that follows (after all, it is named after him).
I’m talking about making good use of the Socratic method.
Here’s the thing. We do a surprising (even alarming) amount of telling when we talk to other people. We make statements. We give instructions or mandates. We exposit at length, making declarations about the way we see things or how we believe things ought to be. And this seems the shortest route to our goal of being understood, right? Just say it in plain English.
But the entire reason I’m writing this post (and the reason you are still reading) is that “just saying it” … doesn’t work.
I can say authoritatively, after decades of experience in helping people with processing disorders think in new ways, that someone can hear you and not be listening. They can hear you without comprehension. In fact, people aside, even a parrot can … well, parrot back information. That parrot can cheerily repeat back what you said a hundred times without a single iota of understanding.
Let’s do a quick experiment (because you know how I feel about experiential learning by now). Please read and repeat the following back to me:
“Trinkets and grooves gobble greedily when varying their freedom.”
Now, I’m willing to bet that you could nod at me, smile and repeat that back without a problem. But is that meaningful? In real life situations, this is much the way “listening” works when one party is doing a lot of telling. The longer the telling goes on, the more the words begin sounding like my “trinkets and grooves” sentence above (think about how the adults sounded in the world of Charlie Brown). And if strong emotion is involved, then even repeating back the “nonsense” I’m hearing would prove challenging.
In order to be an effective communicator, you first have to learn how to ask good questions. And in order to know how to ask good questions, you have to be sufficiently convinced of why asking is superior to telling. You won’t change your approach unless you believe in the benefits.
I’m here to convince you.In order to be an effective communicator, you first have to learn how to ask good questions. Click To Tweet
When you speak in statements, the information is coming through your soul and mind and out of your mouth. You may feel convinced or passionate about what you are saying, and so you (wrongfully) assume that others will feel convinced or passionate, as well. But here’s the thing: when statements are used, the hearer does not have to process the information. You are doing all of the processing, so they don’t have to. The listener can be completely passive, nodding along in the comfort of letting you continue taking responsibility for both of you.
But when you use a Socratic approach (by figuring out how to ask good questions instead of making statements), the listener can no longer remain passive. In order to answer a question, the listener must process it. The answer must go through their own soul and mind, in order to come out of their own mouth.
Stop and think about the truth and power behind that.
Before I give some practical examples, let me first say that not every statement should be presented as a question. Particularly where serious news must be delivered, keeping things short and direct is best. So “I’m sorry, Gerry, but due to budget constraints, we’re forced to cut your position effective next month” is the best approach given the situation. Likewise, “The results have come back and the lump is cancerous; let’s discuss treatment options” requires a compassionate and direct approach. There is no worry in such situations that the hearer will lack personal connection. You can be sure that they are intimately involved and processing (or doing their best to process).
Even in such situations, the follow-up can easily shift to appropriate questions (e.g., “Is there anything I can do to help you transition?” or “Would you like to talk about how you’re feeling?”)
However, in the vast majority of situations, any statement can be replaced with a thoughtful question. Let’s look at a few examples.
“You’re late repeatedly and it’s not looking good going into your annual review. It’s also being noticed by other employees who are coming to me, asking why you get to come in late all the time; and honestly, I don’t need the added aggravation.”
“How often would you say you’ve arrived late to work so far this month? [pause for reply] And how do you think that might be viewed by myself and others? [pause for reply] Can you imagine what kind of position it tends to put me in, when people ask me about it? [pause for reply] If you were me, what would you do about the situation? [pause for reply]”
To reiterate, with the above statements, you have thought a lot about something and then processed it out of your mouth at someone. But most likely, right away, the other person will be on the defensive. They will not be processing what you are saying, but rather how to avoid consequence, what reasonable-sounding excuses to offer, what they will do if you’re building up to firing them, etc.
By using a Socratic approach, however, not only does the listener need to process the information through his own soul and mind in order to reply, you don’t have to be the bad guy. BONUS. You see, when you put thought into how to ask good questions instead of making statements, you are allowing others to not only have self-discovery, but to develop perspective and empathy, and to take responsibility for their own actions.
If that were the only example I gave, I hope it would be compelling enough to convince you of the benefits of asking over telling. But let’s add a few more, to seal the deal.
“While our numbers for the quarter haven’t dropped, they’re also not increasing. No business will stay in business very long just keeping to the status quo. So we’ve got to make some drastic changes in the coming quarter in order to try to get those numbers up.”
“Please take one of the 3 x 5 cards from the center of the table and answer this question: How do you believe our numbers ended up this past quarter? Lower, higher or about the same as the previous quarter? [Pause for written reply, then show one slide containing no words, just a bar graph of the three most recent quarters.] In looking at this chart, does it match what you thought and wrote down on your card? Are there any surprises? [pause for feedback] How do you feel about where the numbers have been and where they are now? Are you satisfied with what you see? [pause for feedback] What do you predict might happen if we stay at these numbers for another quarter? [pause for feedback] What specific changes might we make in order to be looking at a different graph next quarter, one that makes us all feel satisfied with the work we’re doing and excited about where we are headed? [pause for feedback]”
Imagine what you might actually learn from the replies of others, once you figure out how to ask good questions and commit to using them in place of statements. In using a Socratic approach, the environment becomes inclusive and dynamic, rather than negative or didactic. And you can be sure that people are engaged, processing and even teaching one another in a way that generates new ideas and momentum.
Let’s take the approach into the home:
“Son, you gave me your word that you would stop smoking, and yet here we are again! This is the third time in a month that you’ve been caught doing it, let alone however many times you’ve lied and gotten away with it. I’m just so disappointed in you. I know you think you know everything and that I’m an idiot, but you don’t and I’m not. Not only are you wrecking your own life every time you pick one up, but now you’ve also wrecked my trust in you. You’re grounded for the entire next month, because the only way I’m going to keep you from dying of cancer is to watch you every second you’re not at school.”
[Handing son pack of cigarettes you found] “What do you think is going through my mind right now? [Pause for response, as long as necessary. Do not break in. Allow the silence if it’s there.] How do you think I might be feeling about it? [pause for response] What is the draw for you? Is it social? Physical? Something else? [pause for reply] What do you think my main reasons are for not wanting you to smoke? [pause for reply] Do you recall promising me you would stop? [Pause for response, resisting the urge to add “And you broke your promise,” which will be evident from the question and its answer.] If you were me right now, given the circumstances, what would you choose as a consequence? [pause for response] And is having my trust important to you? [pause] How do you think this situation affects my trust in you? [pause]”
Of course, in a real dialog, your questions might take a different direction, depending on the replies from your son. But, like the example of the late employee above, the Socratic method helps you to keep your emotions in check while also letting your son “be the bad guy.” He will process, learn, gain some empathy by experiencing some of what you are feeling, teach himself, build decision-making skills – even help devise his own punishment – all without you telling him a single thing.
Let me add two additional thoughts quickly.
First, rhetorical questions don’t count. These are simply adding a question structure to a statement, but they are still a statement (and will be received as such).
Example: “You really don’t care about my opinion, do you?”
Second, never lose sight of the importance of motive. Learning new techniques simply to make yourself “a better communicator” can leave you coming off as merely “clinically appropriate” or even condescending. Start by assessing why you want to communicate better. When your honest answer to that question is “because I value people,” you will find the Socratic method and all other communication skills become more effective.
If you’ll commit to being intentional about learning how to ask good questions, and use those questions as replacements for statements whenever possible, you will unlock the door to effective and compelling communication, whether speaking to thousands of people, a dozen – or just one.
Would you like further examples? Do you have a certain situation in mind where you can’t quite see how questions might work? I invite you to share your own questions, tips or experiences in the Comments section below.