In her book Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication, Sharon Strand Ellison shows us how to use non-defensive communication and end the power struggle by asking questions, making statements and predicting consequences in an open, sincere way without trying to control how other people respond. 

When we do this, we increase our ability to gather accurate information, speak with clarity, protect ourselves, and hold others more accountable. We also foster respect and strengthen personal and professional relationships. 

In my Ombuzz blog post dated December 18, 2020, (Non-Defensive Communication (Part 1): The Value of Asking Non-Defensive Questions), I focused on the importance of asking curious, open, innocent, neutral, and inviting questions to gather information in an effort to accurately understand what the other person means, believes, or feels. 

Part 2 focuses on forming content and process questions to get to the heart of what the other person really means. 

Content Questions

Type of QuestionPurposeExample
Who, what, when, where, how and why*Helps gather the details regarding a situation or a person’s reactions.For example, “Why did you decide not to do the dishes?” or “What prevented you from doing the dishes?”
Inverting a Statement into a QuestionTurns the other person’s statement into a question to challenge our own assumptions. Because people don’t say what they mean, we might learn that a statement means something very different than what we think it does. Statement: “You won’t like the fish.”Assumption: They don’t think I like seafood.Inversion: “Do you think I don’t like seafood?”Response: “Oh gosh, no. I have no idea how you feel about seafood. I was just letting you know I had a really bad experience last time I ate their fish. 
What do you mean?Seeks clarification about the meaning of a particular word or phrase.Directly asking about a word or phrase provides us more information before we react. It affords the other person an opportunity to explain their thought process rather than get defensive.“That won’t work.” “What do you mean by that won’t work?” Rather than assume the other person is criticizing our idea, gather information. You might obtain information you didn’t know or hadn’t considered when presenting your idea.
Asking about our assumptionsAsk the other person directly to confirm or deny our own assumption regarding what they mean. When we assume we know what the other person means, we might later find there has been a misunderstanding. “Do you mean…?”“Are you saying…? ““When you say…?”
Questions about quantityObtain clarification about words that describe amounts, percentages or degrees. This clarifies generalizations and gets the other person to make a more accurate statement, the degree to which they mean it, and to consider what prompted it in the first place. “By always, do you mean…?”“When you say all, do you mean….?”
Questions that compare and contrastAsk questions about opposites, variations, and exceptions. Questions that address the other side, or other possibilities, allows the other person to gain perspective.“Is it possible that…?”“What if…?”
Asking about contradictionsAsk about any contradiction in what the person has said or done.“What is the relationship between A and B?”“Given X…, why Y?” Maintain a curious tone to avoid feeling accusatory.
Questions about past, present, and future Ask questions related to time factors. This helps us understand what motivates people to feel a certain way, develop a certain course of action, or develop a particular attitude.“How long…”“When did you decide….”“How are you feeling now?”“When will you….?”
Using, first, second, and third person Ask the same question with a focus on different subjects to gain perspective from different angles. This helps us understand someone’s perspective from varying angles and again helps clarify generalizations.For example, the other person states that all Americans are unhealthy.First person: “Do you see me as unhealthy?”Second person: “Do you think you are unhealthy?”Third person: “Do you think all people are unhealthy?”
Questions about value, emotion, reason, and behaviorAsk about what a person believes, feels, thinks, and does. These questions help us gather information to better understand the meaning behind the words they used.  Value: “Do you believe….?”Emotion: “How do you feel when….?”Reasoning: “Do you think…?”Behavior: “What did you [say/do]…?”

*Caution: Questions beginning with ‘why’ can feel interrogating because we often follow the why with a contracted verb which sounds accusatory. You can make it non-defensive by following with a verb that is not contracted. Another option is to replace the why question with a what question. What questions are neutral and don’t imply judgment.

Process Questions

Process questions focus on the reaction and behavior rather than the content of what is being discussed. When either party can no longer talk cooperatively or you sense tension, move to process questions to find out what is going on. 

Questions about involuntary reactions

  • Ask about a tone of voice or body language including facial reactions. 
  • For those of you familiar with Crucial Conversations, this is a lot like mirroring. 
  • “Why did you frown when you agreed to go hiking with me?”

Questions about Attitude

  • Ask about a specific attitude while remaining respectful. You can use the do you think and do you believe questions here. “Do you think your way of X is better than mine?” “Do you believe you know how to do X better that I do?” Tone is everything.  
  • A more direct approach is effective as well when you suspect the other person is being pessimistic, skeptical, hostile, etc. For instance, when you suggest going out for dinner and your partner keeps making statements as to why going out might not work. Rather than continuing the conversation you could ask “Are you feeling pessimistic about going out for dinner?”

Questions about Motivation and intention 

  • Ask what caused a person to react in a certain way or what the person is seeking to accomplish in the interaction. “What prompted you to say X?” “What was your intention when you…?”

This is not linear. You will likely move back and forth between content questions and process questions using a variety of formats in any given conversation. The more you practice the easier it will become to form questions and recognize when to move from content to process. Once your conversations are 50% questions, you will find your communication much more effective. 

Let’s consider this scenario:

During this week’s team meeting, Manager speaks of “breeding efficiency”.  After the meeting, Employee reflects on what Manager said and concludes, “breeding efficiency” is code for “layoffs.” 

Manager left the meeting satisfied that it went very well expecting the team to be more conscientious of managing their time and to be more efficient with office supplies. 

Employee shares their interpretation with some of the other team members. Before long, the entire team believes there will be layoffs compounding the misunderstanding, increasing stress, and generating conflict among the team.

While this is certainly an example of a manager not clearly expressing his ideas, Employee contributed to the situation as well. 

  • What could Employee have done during or following the meeting?
  • What might be some appropriate and helpful non-defensive content questions?
  • When might you want to use a non-defensive process question?

By: Liz Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office