Ask questions to become a more effective communicator


Here’s a simple way to become a more effective communicator: ask more questions. Not just any questions will do; to be really successful, you need to ask the most basic, fundamental questions possible—in fact, the dumbest questions you can think of.

Why? Good question. Because the only way you’ll successfully communicate is by putting yourself in the shoes of the newest, least knowledgeable or most clueless employees. To do so, you need to forget that you know anything and ask questions like these:

  • How does this work?
  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • What does it mean? How will it affect people?
  • When does this start? How long will it take?
  • What will employees care most about?
  • What is this like? Have people experienced anything similar?
  • What obstacles do we face in achieving this? What’s your greatest fear?
  • If you had to explain this to someone completely new, how would you do so?
  • How will we know if this is a success? What happens if it doesn’t work?

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet I have been in too many meetings where information about an initiative or change is presented, and nobody asks questions.

For example, several years ago, we had a client company that had a lot going on: acquisitions, new products, dozens of initiatives. Our communicator client was working 15 hours a day trying to keep up with it all. So I wasn’t surprised when she invited me to a meeting but didn’t have time to brief me about the topic and my role.

When I arrived, 12 people were gathered around a large conference table waiting for the senior VP (of something or other) to present. It seemed we were there to support an initiative, but after that it got a bit fuzzy. The fuzziness intensified as the senior VP slowly narrated his MBA-level PowerPoint, which had enough data to fry a supercomputer.

After 20 long minutes, the senior VP paused. “Any questions?” he said. Participants didn’t speak. They didn’t even move.

So I raised my hand. “Would you explain how this is going to affect the average employee? And when will people begin to see the impact?"

There was a moment of silence, as if participants were surprised I had spoken. But the senior VP rallied and replied. That broke the ice and soon we were having a real discussion about what the initiative meant and what we needed to do to communicate it.

Afterwards, the client thanked me for asking what she called “such simple questions.” She said, “We’re not good at getting down to the basics of an issue. We tend to plunge ahead and realize later that we’re missing essential information.”

I believe there’s no such thing as a dumb question. In fact, the smartest thing you can do is ask the most basic question you can think of.

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