Why Would I Ever Need to Change How I Ask Questions?

Husband: “Where are your car keys?”

Me: “Where they always are..”

Husband: “And where are they always?”

Me: “On the ledge.”

Husband briefly walks away and returns: “They’re not there.”

Me confidently: “Yes they are. I just saw them. Go check again.”

Frustrated, Husband walks away and returns: “Can you please help me?”

Me (a bit irritated): “Sure.” 

I start walking down the hallway, towards the garage.

Husband: “Where are you going?”

Me: “To the ledge to get the keys.”

Husband: “That’s not the ledge. The ledge is by the front door..”

And hence, the need for clarity when it comes to communicating.

As an ombuds, I often meet with people who are having problems with colleagues because of misunderstandings that have not been addressed, have festered, and created feelings of distrust. The initial bump in the road is usually quite benign and the intentions are good. However, for whatever reason there is a disconnect between the messenger and receiver of information. Most of the time everyone is able to move forward but when problems do arise they can cause great distress, a decrease in productivity, and occasionally a severing of relationships. 

In a March 2020, Forbes article, Five Tips For Communicating With Clarity As A Leader (Shiloh Holmes) shares several steps people can proactively take to promote effective exchanges of information whether in verbal conversations or via emails and texts. Those steps are: (1) Slow things down, (2) Avoid slang, (3) Actively listen, (4.) Ask questions in different ways, and (5.) Use silence appropriately. While all of these steps are useful, I would like to dive a bit deeper into Tip #4 and add to it, gather additional information. 

For me, the best way to seek clarity is to ask, ask, ask and then affirm I have heard them correctly. ome phrases that have served me well include:

  • “Tell me more about . . .. “
  • “Can you help me understand?”
  • “I’m a bit confused. Can you share more about .. . .?”
  • “Can you repeat that last part again?”
  • “My bad. Did you just say ________?”
  • “When you say _____, does that mean _____?”
  • “Is it your understanding that ______?”
  • “What am I missing?”
  • “I’ve never heard that term before. What does it mean?”
  • “Can we step back for a second? I think it would be helpful for me to know more about .. . .”
  • “Can we stop for a second? I need to process.”
  • “What have we forgotten?”

These are just a few of the ways I try to better understand what my visitor is trying to share with me. I have also found these techniques useful at home! My latest key-saga with my husband actually included, “When you say ‘ledge’, do you mean by the garage or the front door?” Success! If you would like to dive deeper into asking questions and gathering information to seek clarity in your conversations, please reach out to your campus ombuds.

By: Melissa Connell, Ombuds Office Director, University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus

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