When a Clarifying Question Isn’t
Recently an area director for a non-profit asked me if I would do a Malama session for a work team that was struggling to communicate with each other. He valued everyone on the team individually, however he could see that together they were not very effective.
Malama is the value of caring, compassion, and stewardship I speak of in Managing with Aloha. In a Malama session, we ‘talk story’ within a defined coaching process, with the goal of clarifying the root cause of workplace issues (Note: Mālama is the correct form of the word, however I will not use the macron over the first ‘a’ here for best publishing in all readers.)
It didn’t take long to see that many individuals in this particular team had felt they weren’t being heard for quite some time. They’d had enough, and now their conversations had turned to dumping; they frequently interrupted each other, would have more than one conversation at a time, and disrespectful body language was unfortunately the norm. There wasn’t that much listening going on. Prime candidates for the Daily 5 Minutes®. (More on that here if you are hearing of the D5M® for the first time.)
At one point during the Malama, a supervisor stated in frustration to his boss, “What you think of as a question is just another interruption, why don’t you ever let me finish?”
His boss’s response was, “You’re not being clear, and I’m struggling to understand you. My questions are clarifying questions so I can get what you’re saying.”
Sounds reasonable, but that isn’t what had been happening; the boss was interrupting because his patience was getting the best of him. It could be that the answer to his clarifying question would have come in pretty short order if it had remained unspoken, however the supervisor was never able to get that far. The good intention of a clarifying question was instead perceived as a rude, impatient, “just get to the point” interruption.
As managers we need to shut out the noise of our own talking way more often than we do. The longer we are in a management role, the more accustomed we get to controlling conversations— in many situations it’s expected, and we don’t realize how that begins to affect our overall demeanor and approachability.
An easy to remember, and very effective strategy in avoiding misplaced clarifying questions is to deal with only one question at a time in a conversation (also smart in keeping to one subject at a time, and getting it actionable before proceeding). You do this, by letting the speaker finish whatever they’re saying before you say anything, and you train yourself to get better at sensing those times when they’ve stopped talking, but they’re actually silently thinking of the next thing they’ll say. Learn to get comfortable with silence; consider it to be thinking time versus your next opportunity to speak.
Recognize that in a superior – subordinate situation, it will normally take the subordinate longer to respond in a conversation between them than it will take the superior. This is not because one is smarter or better than the other; this is simply because the agenda of the conversation normally belongs to the superior. Whoever controls the agenda has done more advanced thinking about whatever the subject is. (This is the pattern the Daily Five Minutes reverses, because the agenda now is held by the subordinate.)
Within this Malama session, I’d advised these two managers that sometimes, the best clarifying question you can possibly ask, with a genuine desire to communicate better (sincerity – no sarcasm!) is “Would you like me to respond now?”
- Learn to Finish Conversations Well
- The Daily 5 Minutes; 9 Questions
- Teaching and Coaching Mālama
- To Show you Care, Show your Respect
Post Author: Rosa Say is the author of Managing with Aloha, Bringing Hawaii’s Universal Values to the Art of Business. She fervently believes that work can inspire, and that great managers and leaders can change our lives for the better. You can also visit her on www.managingwithaloha.com. Rosa writes for Lifehack.org to freely offer her coaching to those of us who aspire to be greater than we are, for she also believes in us. Writing on What Great Managers Do is one of her favorite topics.
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