Most people like to talk, and one can learn a lot from listening to them. As mentioned earlier, questions are one of the ways to get people talking about their general and specific issues and motivations. Especially in emotionally charged situations, questions can help reveal how another party is framing the situation. Their response will reveal not only their communication style, but also the biases and assumptions they bring to the situation. This is equally useful in learning the other party’s goals for a conversation and the motivations behind their actions. The questions you ask also say something about you. Asking meaningful questions helps build trust between parties.
Questions become even more effective after trust has been established, especially when there is a power disparity involved. For example, a wellsite manager brings in a derrickhand and asks his opinion on a new safety protocol that is about to be implemented. If the manager has a very aggressive communications style and is constantly putting people down, the derrickhand may hesitate to raise concerns for fear of reprisal, or being labelled insubordinate. However, if the manager has fostered and maintained an open and respectful channel of communications, the derrickhand is much more likely to give an honest answer about his concerns, which could be instrumental in improving the safety protocol.
One of the key elements of questioning is active listening. The best communicators fully engage with their audience, even if that audience is just one other person. Asking questions is only half of the strategy. The other half is listening and truly understanding what the other person is saying. Repeating back answers is one way to ensure that you have understood what the other party is saying. In difficult conversations, this can be key to getting back on the same page and moving forward.
Images: “Question” by Wee Sen Goh licensed under CC BY NC 2.0; “Oil derrick drilling floor” by Alexey Zaytsev via Shutterstock