The young mother was waiting anxiously for her 12 year-old son to come home from school.
As the boy burst into the front door and leaped up the stairs, taking them two at a time, he gave his mother only the most cursory glance.
“I’m getting my glove and going to the park to play ball.”
“Not until we talk,” his mom cautioned.
“Aww, about what mom?”
“How was school today?”
“What did you learn?”
“What did you talk about?”
“Do you have any homework?”
“No…Can I go Mom?”
“Okay, just be back in time for supper”
After her boy left the mom felt poorly about her inability to engage her son in a meaningful dialog about school. While she was truly interested in his schoolwork and felt she was asking the right questions, she wasn’t getting the answers that she hoped for. Yet, if he didn’t have any homework, there didn’t seem to be a problem in letting him go out and play. Still there was a nagging feeling that something was unsaid or unfinished.
How many managers have had that same feeling when talking to an employee or team member about the status of a project? How many salespeople have felt that way after talking with a client? Often times in business we seek to have a meaningful conversation with a customer or employee and get “stonewalled.” Is this because they are unwilling to put the time into communicating with us? Is it because they are uncommitted? How can we deal with this? How can we build enough value in our communication that people WANT to listen and engage in conversation with us? In order to understand this we need to look at the way we think when listening to others speak.
Thinking is inspired by questions. Einstein himself said, “It is important that we never stop asking questions.” Consider this: the average child asks 125 questions per day. The average adult asks six! But after a short time children learn to stop asking questions. Mom and Dad just don’t want to answer them anymore and the same thing happens in school. Teachers talk AT kids more often than with them.
Yet questions are the primary way that we learn. The great thinker and philosopher, Socrates taught his students by asking questions. He made them think in order to come up with the right answers. We now call this method of communication the Socratic Method.
Good questions take time and if asked incorrectly they can be an irritant and shut down communication rather than open it. In the dialog above the mother was getting nowhere with her questions. Yet imagine if she could have changed her questions to prompt a more meaningful response. She could have asked:
“Do you mean:..?”
“Tell me more.”
For example when her son said school was okay she could have said: “Do you mean it was okay meaning you’re glad it’s over or okay you’re looking forward to going back tomorrow?” This would open the lines of communication and give mom the ability to draw out her son’s thoughts and feelings about school.
In business we can use the same principle to elicit a more detailed response. For example if employees tell us that the project is going okay then we can say: “Do you mean that it’s almost finished or that you are on schedule? Tell me more about that.”
This works well with customers also. If a customer or client says: “we are not ready to move forward yet,” you can say, “I understand. Do you mean that something is preventing you from doing so or that there will be a better time to do so? Thank you for sharing. That’s interesting, tell me more about that.” Again this opens the lines of communication and gets us the valuable information that we need in order to customize the right solution for the customer.
This technique forces the person to take a stand on one of two options and give us more information. So the next time you get stonewalled either by a customer or team member try this technique. I have found it can work wonders on getting even the most tight-lipped people to open-up.