Misunderstanding can happen in many ways and from a variety of aspects. This article focuses on outlining clear communication in one in specific category – questions.
“When asking or answering questions, make your underlying assumptions and motives explicit. You’ll get and give answers more quickly, and avoid all kinds of potential emotional landmines.” – Robbins
Stever Robbins, Get-It-Done Guy, tells a story as to help explain the misunderstanding triggers and errors in questioning. Here’s the story:
“It’s been a rough day at Green Growing Things, Bernice’s little plant shop, which specializes in hard-to-find species like the carnivorous Audrey II’s. The store is in the running for first place in the Guinness Book of World Records for healthiest Audrey II’s raised with no inadvertent missing persons reports. The inspection team is due to arrive in just a few minutes.
Bernice is beside herself checking last-minute details. “Europa!” she screams, “Why did you water the Audrey II’s so much?” Europa, who is usually the cashier and not the plant caretaker, is puzzled. “What are you talking about?” “The entire watering can is empty! How could you be so careless?” responds Bernice. As you can imagine, the conversation devolves from there.”
Ask What You Mean
Most of the time, people don’t ask what they really want to know. This is a problem. Usually this occurs because the person asking the question thinks it is obvious what they really mean by it. They assume the one being questioned understands what they want to know. But more often than not, the person has no idea.
In the story Bernice is actually concerned about whether the Audrey II’s have been over-watered. But instead of asking exactly that, she asked Europa’s reason for watering the plants so much.
There Is Hidden Content
A person asking a question has a mental context for the question that nobody else knows about. Only they know the details to the question. But this is forgotten. The reality is that even though there is something we don’t know (which is why there is a question) there are some things we do know. But the things that are known are invisible to the person we’re asking the question to.
In the story all Bernice is concerned about is having healthy plants. The given information she has there on the spot is a big watering can that’s totally empty and it’s sitting right there next to the Audrey II holding pens. Her first reaction upon seeing that is to assumed that the can was full, and that all the water was used to water the plants.
You Know What They Say About Assumptions
To help avoid asking questions from assuming, pause and do a quick mental inventory. See if the question is directly reflecting what you need to know. It helps to ask yourself:
- “What’s my real concern?”
- “What’s the evidence that prompted my question?”
In the story Bernice’s real concern is whether the plants were over-watered but instead she asked, “Why did you water the Audrey II’s so much?” What she should have asked in this situation was, “I’m concerned that we keep the plants healthy. I saw the empty watering can and want to know if it’s possible you over-watered the plants?” By phrasing her concern like this she incorporates her goal (healthy plants), what she knows (there’s an empty watering can), and her real question (whether the plants have been over-watered) all in one question.
“A question that asks what you really want to know, and that makes it clear what evidence (or lack of evidence) is triggering the question, has a much greater chance of getting the answer you actually need. A question with context is better than a question all by its lonesome.” – Robbins
Answer What Is Asked
The question isn’t all to blame either. Sometimes the answer does not relate to the question. If a person doesn’t answer the question they’re asked there’s misunderstanding too. It could be because we’re trying to answer what we think they really mean, or it could just be laziness.
The story goes on to later on in the day when Europa asks Bernice, “What’s the address for our meeting with the Guinness team?” Bernice answers, “I’m pretty sure it’s in the calendar invite.” Because she is too lazy to answer the question correctly by looking in the calendar invite herself she has just adds additional back-and-forth to the exchange of conversation which opens space for further misunderstanding .
In a situation like this Bernice might just reply by telling Europa, “The address is 1010 Anytown Lane. I’m pretty sure it’s in the calendar invite. If you didn’t check there, it would save us both time if you could look there first next time.” But (!) this leads to the last point of clear communication…
Conflict Can Come From Inconsistent Information
Europa actually did check the invite even though the way she answered the question made it seem like she hadn’t. What really happened was that she couldn’t read the address and that’s why she told Bernice to check herself, (not in the right words). She should have been clear with her answer that she had checked but the address was illegible and Bernice also shouldn’t assume she hadn’t checked.
So make sure your retraining comment is explicit that way all the assumptions and motives are on the table.
Stever Robbins, Get-It-Done Guy, concludes his story with this explanatory ending:
“On the way to Anytown Lane, Bernice and Europa reviewed their earlier exchange. Their conflict had come from differing knowledge. Bernice assumed the watering can had been full and the plants over-watered. Nope. Europa had only filled it halfway, and the plants were fine. Knowing both sides, Europa understood Bernice’s concern, and Bernice knew to check her assumptions next time. They arrived for the Guinness meeting with time to spare. The plants were so healthy and happy that Green Growing Things was awarded the world record. “
What Is The Overall Lesson?
Just remember that when it comes to asking questions, you may know why you’re asking and what’s triggering you to ask but the person you’re talking to doesn’t. Just be explicit and ask the real question to maintain a level of minimum drama in your life. Likewise when answering questions. From either side of the conversation your directions must be clear (and without your emotions getting in the way) to prevent misunderstandings.
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