Transforming Talk At Work | May 2015


“It seems like he’s trying to sabotage me,” Jenn said with a tone of anxiety as she sipped her chai and stared out the coffee shop window. She was referring to her long-time colleague, Rick. “Every time we have a client deadline he promises to get his work in on time, but he keeps dropping the ball. He didn’t use to be this way.”

I could see than Jenn felt stuck, and I inquired as to how she’d dealt with the situation thus far. “I’m so tired of burning the midnight oil to pick up Rick’s slack. Just yesterday I confronted him, but all he does is get defensive or shut down.”

“What exactly did you say when you asked Rick about his missed deadlines?” I prompted gently.

“Something along the lines of, ‘Why didn’t you get your part in to me on time?’” Jenn replied with an indignant shrug.

Ah, there it was. Jenn asked Rick what I refer to as a non-question. Sure, the grammatical structure may sound like a question, but the message is all statement – “Rick, what you did was wrong, and you better have a good excuse.” Although Jenn’s frustration may be fully warranted, a sentiment like this one is bound to be met with defensiveness and withdrawal. Jenn won’t get the information she’s looking for, and Rick will just feel persecuted.

Instead of leading with blame or anger, I suggested that Jenn use a tool that I call objective inquiry. The key to this strategy is structuring your questions around the other person. “Make the question genuine; make it really about Rick, not about what you think of Rick’s behavior. Try using my favorite objective inquiry question: ‘What else is going on?’”

Jenn took my advice and was surprised by what she learned. Rick’s father had recently fallen ill and Rick was helping to care for both of his parents every night after work. Distracted by day and exhausted by night, it was obvious that Rick was having trouble keeping his head above water.

Rick’s story by no means justifies his performance slump, but the new information Jenn gained allowed her team to move toward a solution that worked for everyone. By using objective inquiry, Jenn was able to remove her personal motives and get to the bottom of the issue. Greater understanding and enhanced connection – it doesn’t get much better than that!

The next time you are flummoxed by a colleague’s behavior, ask “What else is going on?” and see where objective inquiry can take you!


Reverse Engineer: Objective Inquiry

1. Get clear on what you want to know about the situation or person at hand.
2. Think of a question you’d like to ask.
3. Carefully evaluate that question to see if your agenda is hidden within the question.
4. Revise the question (or start over) so that it is entirely focused on the other person.
5. Ask the question and while doing so, use your listener adaptationskills.
6. Listen intently. You are sure to learn something new.


Digest This: Better Questions

5 Ways to Ask the Perfect Question (Inc.)
This article covers the top three question no-no’s (leading the witness, asking either/or questions, skipping clarity) before giving you the tools to make it right. It’s a quick read with a clear and valuable message.

Relearning the Art of Asking Questions (Harvard Business Review)
At school and at work we are consistently rewarded for having answers, but that’s only half the story. We have a great deal to lose when we forget to ask questions! Take a look at four types of questions – adjoining, elevating, clarifying and funneling – that will steer you towards sound and informed workplace decisions.

How to Ask Better Questions (Fast Company)
Here is a great reminder: asking questions is not a sign of weakness, it is the mark of a true leader. This article teaches leaders how to formulate questions that empower others, stretch boundaries and much more. Asking questions can feel vulnerable, but it is so worth it!


My Treat: Ask and You Shall Receive

I recently delivered a keynote about asking great questions. After I spoke, one of the participants shared a striking video with me.

This teacher beautifully demonstrates objective inquiry with her students, and received deeply poignant and truthful answers in reply. Enjoy.

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FREE WEBINAR BONUS: 5 Hacks to Improve Your Workplace Relationships

Tune in Wednesday, May 27 at Noon (Central Time) to learn simple, yet often overlooked techniques for strengthening interpersonal connections at work. You will learn five easy things that will positively shift your relationships with your colleagues. Make going to work more fun, friendly and – most of all – functional!

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Until next time,

Janel Anderson, PhD
Workplace Communication Expert and CEO of Working Conversations

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