I wrote last week about the use of words, the centrepiece of communication. Yes, I know about the academic theory saying that spoken words constitute no more than 7% of communication, far behind tone (38%) and body language (55%) but in these days of social media and telephone I would suggest we need to take another look at these figures.
“I keep six honest serving men
(The taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who”
These are the wise words of Rudyard Kipling (1855-1936) in the children’ classic, The Just So Stories, and whether or not the concept was an original, they have been and are being used today to great effect.
They are the cornerstone of conversation and indeed of great communication. Every individual who considers themselves a coach knows and uses them instinctively.
The problem lies in their misuse or rather the use of inappropriate alternatives.Kipling's Six Honest Working Men are Open questions, in that they all demand a considered response, presumably the desired outcome of the discussion.
On the other hand there are also the Closed questions generally beginning with a verb such as Do…, Are…, Will… and similar all of which allow only for a Yes/No response.
Listening recently to an early breakfast show on the radio this struck me forcibly. The presenter was talking to a very sensible 8 year old child and persisted in using closed questions. “Did you enjoy..?”, “Are you going…?” and so on, The sensible child answered Yes or No as appropriate. That was it - Yes or No and you could feel the palpable discomfiture of the presenter who presumably considered the child to be stupid.
Eventually the presenter, almost by luck, used an open question and the child, quite correctly, launched into an articulate and well structured response.
Expecting a considered response to a closed question is a matter of luck, not design.
The worst of all questions are those beginning with “Do you think….?” and then continuing with an exposition of the questioner’s opinion. That might work well in court as a leading question but it is a poor alternative to a well thought out open question.
So let’s examine open questions more closely. They fall into three groups each of which has a specific role to play.
The first group are the basic information gatherers, for example, “WHO is involved…?”, “WHERE is the action taking place...?” WHEN will it happen...?”
In each case judicious placing of the open question word can make the process seem less prescriptive and hence less of an inquisition.
The next group is the key to good communication and to relationship building. “WHAT is the topic that want to discuss today?” It doesn’t need to be sharp and incisive; it is often better again to cloak the question with other words always remembering that the sense of the key open question word must be observed.
For example, “Give me a run down on the situation” isn’t a question but again it is less prescriptive and should get the same answer.
The other two in this group, HOW and WHAT build knowledge of the issue itself and are the start of some ideas of what might constitute an outcome.
Now we come to the WHY question. My friend and great Vistage speaker Carole Gaskell is strongly of the opinion that the use of WHY should, if at all possible, be avoided. Carole considers that WHY is or at least can be an aggressive start to a question.
I am not too sure. Using WHY judiciously, perhaps in the context of the previous question, really ought to be the one way through to complete understanding always given that no finger pointing is definitely not involved.
Above all we need to remember that this is a discussion and not an inquisition; that we are looking to achieve a mutually satisfactory outcome and that is less likely when we are in aggressive, confrontational mode.
Thank you Rudyard Kipling for the use of your six honest working men, a trifle old fashioned in description but nonetheless valuable for all time.
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