Get Clarity by Asking These Two Questions.

July 29th 2014

Talking to humans can be so confusing, especially when we have to discuss difficult issues. Take a conversation about a team member’s behavior, for example. We think we have spoken clearly, addressed the issues, offered solutions, and asked for feedback. We actually feel proud of ourselves for dealing with an awkward situation, and we’re optimistic that the team member’s behavior will improve.

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And then nothing changes. The team member continues to behave precisely in the ways you counseled her against. You begin to grit your teeth a bit harder when dealing with her because you simply do not understand why she isn’t getting it. If your team member is at all attuned to you, she is likely to sense your irritation and to be confused by it. This happens in firms every day. It’s a classic failure to close the communication loop effectively.

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You can change that by asking two questions at the end of your conversation:

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  1. “What do you think about our discussion?” This requires the team member to respond to the issues you brought up. It also permits her to recount her understanding of what you said, particularly regarding what she needs to do better. In this sense, she acknowledges her role in the conversation and her role in changing her behavior
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  3. “What do you feel about our discussion?” Notice the words here. Ask what she feels about it, not how she feels about it. Asking someone how they feel very often brings up all kinds of defensive responses, which are useless when we’re seeking clarity and change. Asking her what she feels instead gives her an opportunity to say, “Well, I hated every word of this conversation but I think I understand better what you want.” It allows her the opportunity to describe her emotions while remaining a bit distant from them. This is particularly important for smart-and-brain-bound professionals.
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When you ask these questions, you need to leave room for plenty of silence. Your team member will not want to answer you. She will want to flee the conversation as quickly as her feet will allow. Don’t permit it. Dig in. Get comfortable with your discomfort and hers. If you want clarity and real understanding between the two of you, it’s vital that you keep the conversation open until she has worked her way through the answers to these two questions.

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This is a powerful technique. It requires courage and mutual trust between you and your team member. I’ve used it in communication coaching sessions, and have found it opens a door to new perspectives and, ultimately, positive changes in behavior. 

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And it sure beats gritting your teeth every day. Dental work is very expensive.

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Communication, leadership, management, professional development

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