The other day I was at the animal shelter where I volunteer and I was very impressed with how super clean our cat room was, so I asked a staff member, “Who cleaned the adoptable cat room today?” It seemed a simple enough question, so I didn’t understand why the response was a somewhat fearful, very suspicious, “I don’t know. Why?”
This encounter reminded me of two very important lessons about communication specific to HOW we ask questions.
First, that past experience colors a person’s present experience. Since I’m the one who often complains about the cleanliness of the room, it was no wonder the person I was talking to was worried. She was probably thinking, “What’s wrong now? What’s she going to gripe about this time?”
Second, you can help set the stage, and the tone of your question by explaining your rationale or intention in asking a question. If I had prefaced my question with, “The cat room looks great today, who cleaned it?” I would not only have caused less fear, but likely would have gotten a quick and honest answer to my question.
This week when you ask someone a question, especially as it relates to the quality of their work OR it is about a subject that has been touchy or contentious in the past, set the stage for the question by explaining your motive in asking.
Rather than saying to your spouse, “When are you going to be home tonight?” and leaving him or her thinking, “Uh, oh, what’s up?” Instead say, “I need someone to pick Josh up from baseball practice at six, can you do it?” or “When will you be home tonight? I’d love to try out that new Italian place for dinner.”
Rather than saying to an employee, “What are you working on right now?” and having them think, “Uh, oh, what’s the boss going to dump on me now?” or “What am I doing wrong that she’s questioning what I’m working on?” Instead, say, “We have a new client meeting this afternoon and I’m going to be out. I’d like you to take the meeting, but wanted to check what you’re working on so we can prioritize.”