Sometimes, communicating with others at work can be like pulling teeth.
A finance staffer only utters one-word responses when you engage him. A department manager can’t grasp that she’s holding up the whole payment process. A trading partner won’t get to the crux of the issue it’s having with your company.
Those difficult conversations are an inevitable part of your role as a company leader. But to improve communication, sometimes you just have to change your approach.
When others aren’t providing the answers you need, shift to a different kind of question, advises workplace expert Michael Schneider. These three kinds of questions garner specific, explicit responses:
1. Probing questions
To get to the root of any problem, you need concrete details. And you have to make sure both sides are comprehending those details the same way.
Example: A trading partner contacts you, saying it’s not satisfied with the current contract terms.
After figuring out the main issue, dive deeper by asking things like, “To what extent?” or “How often?” And to see that you’re on the same page, use “What do you mean?” Even if you think you already know what they mean, this’ll get them to iron out more specifics, so you can find the best solution.
2. Hypothetical questions
Where company money’s concerned, you and your finance staff know how to make smart decisions. But sometimes other employees don’t quite get it. And when your finance staffers can’t get through to them, the issue may be directed to you. In those cases, use hypothetical questions to test others’ knowledge and understanding, Schneider says.
Example: A seasoned sales rep approaches you, frustrated because A/P denied reimbursement for an expense that’s clearly out of policy.
Here, you can use hypotheticals to see how well they actually know policies and have them come to the correct conclusion on their own. Ask questions like, “How would you justify this expense to IRS?” Their responses will show how well they really know company and federal policies. And as they reply, chances are they’ll start to see your side. You’re teaching them how to think, not what to think, Schneider adds.
3. Open-ended questions
You know it’s hard to fully understand someone’s viewpoint through only “yes” or “no” answers. If you ask open questions that require a longer response, you’ll get more information and have more time to think of an appropriate reply, Schneider points out.
Example: During a one-on-one meeting, you and a finance manager are discussing their performance.
Try to avoid phrases that elicit a one-word response like, “Do you like the work you’re doing?” Instead, ask questions that require more thought: “What’s your favorite part of your job? What skills or duties would you like to focus on more? What are you struggling with and feel you need to work on?”