Expert Panel

Focus on these things to succeed in Workplace Communication Skills

3 Communication Techniques To Lead Effective Conversations


By Deb Calvert, President, People First Productivity Solutions

{#/pub/images/askquestions.jpg}In the workplace, there’s something about questions that makes people uncomfortable. As a result, we often fail to ask the questions that would elicit information we need in order to be effective.  There are three essential communication techniques you can use to break through these barriers and steer toward effective conversations. 


1)     Share Your Intention

2)     Be Efficient & To The Point

3)     Craft Your Questions As Open-Ended


Let’s start by examining what it is that makes us shy away from asking questions. Then we’ll look at some tips and techniques for asking quality questions that yield good information.


People hold back in asking questions because they fear that their questions will seem intrusive or suspicious. As a result, they avoid asking questions altogether or they water down their questions so as not to seem too direct. Both adjustments impair communication.


We may view questions this way because of how they are portrayed in pop culture. In movies, questions are used to entrap a suspect, indict a witness, interrogate a prisoner, bully a victim or otherwise attack someone. Celebrity interviews we see and hear include questions that set up pre-planned promotions or that try to make the interviewee uncomfortable in the same “gotcha” vein. You seldom see conversations with an exchange that includes questions that follow a natural course of genuine interest in others.


Perhaps we view questions this way because we’ve experienced, first hand, that being asked a question can lead to some discomfort. Job interviews and interpersonal conflicts seem to be comprised of others asking questions that you struggle to answer correctly.


Others’ reactions may also deter us from asking more questions. It seems that a lot of people misunderstand that a question is a way of seeking information, not a personal attack. Asking “did you complete the report?” is not intended to shame, embarrass or harass the report writer. But the defensive response you might get to this question will make it clear that the report writer heard it that way. There is, however, a difference between asking a question and questioning a person.


It’s true that the person asking the questions has the upper hand and that perception of power may feel intimidating to others. So in order to be effective in communication, we need to be thoughtful about how we ask questions. That starts with explaining your intentions. If you open with a question, the other party is likely to wonder where it came from and where this conversation is going. They will view you as the hostile prosecutor and feel as if they have suddenly been thrust into the hot glare of a naked light bulb as you try to expose them. 


That all changes if you simply share your intention. A set-up phrase, preceding your question(s), would sound like this: “I’m trying to get a handle on my priorities for the rest of the week, and I have just a couple of questions for you…” Then you can ask “What’s the status on the report you’re writing?” and the report writer will understand the context of your question. This will eliminate the feeling that they’ve been ambushed, minimize any defensive responses, and lead to a productive conversation.


After you’ve signaled your intent and opened up the conversation, be careful not to accidentally trigger alarms by asking vague questions. When it sounds like you’re on a fishing expedition, the person you’re talking to will begin to feel like you’re looking for that “gotcha” piece of information. Vague questions are usually the result of poor preparation for a conversation. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, that will come across. But instead of sounding like poor preparation, it will sound like you’re trying to build a case by gathering bits and pieces of information that will come back to “bite” the person answering your questions.


So in addition to signaling your intent, you need to get clarity about what it is you’d like to know before you start firing away with questions. You’ll want to be efficient and to the point with your questions. Too many questions and it feels like an interrogation instead of a conversation. 


The best way to get lots of information without asking lots of questions is to craft your questions as open-ended instead of closed-ended. That means you won’t get yes/no and short answers. If you ask open-ended questions, you invite more sharing and will get more complete responses.


Closed-ended questions start with helper verbs (also called auxiliary verbs). These are those pesky little words that creep into our questions far more often than most people realize. They dilute the power of good questions and signal that the person answering should be brief in the way they respond. When you put these words at the beginning of a question, that question can always be answered with a yes or no. Even when people add a little more information, it will be brief. The helper verbs are:

  • is, am, are, was, were
  • be, being, been
  • has, have, had
  • do, does, did
  • will, shall, should, would
  • can, could
  • may, might, must


If you want to open up conversations and get more information, don’t use the helper verbs at the start of your questions. Instead, use one of these open-ended question words – who, what, where, when, why, how, which. These cannot be answered yes/no and will require some thought before responding.


When you want to get a particularly detailed or thoughtful answer, use a command statement instead of a question. These are very effective in getting people to open up. Command statements that replace questions start with phrases like these: 

  • Tell me…
  • Explain…
  • Describe…
  • Help me understand…
  • Walk me through…


By asking well-crafted questions, thinking first about what you really want to know, and explaining your intent, you will be in command of the conversation AND the other person will be much more comfortable, too. The outcome of these conversations will be that you have more insights and information to work with, and that will make you more effective in all that you do. 


{#/pub/images/DebCalvert.png}Written by Deb Calvert, President, People First Productivity Solutions

Author of the DISCOVER Questions book series, Deb has worked as a sales productivity specialist and sales researcher since 2000. She is certified as a Master Sales Coach, Master Trainer, and host of CONNECT! an online radio show for selling professionals where listeners ignite their selling power in just an hour. Deb helps companies to boost productivity through people development. This work includes leadership program design and facilitation, strategic planning with executive teams, team effectiveness work, and performance management program design. 


Do you have a question for Deb?  Please visit our Workplace Communication Skills Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


Did you find this story informative?  We would like the opportunity to keep you up to date on all of our training articles.  Please register for our newsletter so we can do just that.  


Here are some related articles you may be interested in: 

Curiosity: Asking the Right Questions to Motivate, Manage & Lead

7 Tips for Communicating with Clarity

How to Manage Team Conflict

Overcome Complacency in the Workplace

Don’t Forget to Delegate! 


ManagingAmericans.com is a community of Business Professionals & Expert Consultants sharing knowledge, success tips and solutions to common job issues.  Our objective is to mentor and develop professionals to be better leaders, managers, team players and individual contributors. Ultimately, helping people succeed in their careers. 


Do you emphasize your own opinions when you give presentations at work?