Open questions, open communication

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2018

Only about half of you who read the title of this article are actually reading this paragraph. That's because one of the first things we learn in business (or at least pay lip service to) is the value of asking "open" as opposed to "closed" questions. We think we're pretty good at it, especially on webmeetings and conference calls. But that doesn't explain why we are generally so abysmal at it in real life, or how important a skill it is when leading remote teams.

First, a quick refresher. Closed questions are those that allow for a one word or short answer. (You get me?) They are not evil, they just don't really give you a lot of information.

Open questions require not only a longer answer, but tend to give you a lot more insight into what the person is actually thinking (so what do you think of this piece so far? Does it resonate with you?).

Think about asking your kid, "did you brush your teeth?". The answer might be "yes" but it might really mean several things:

  • I brushed my teeth exactly as you asked, Dad
  • I got the toothbrush wet, took two swipes across the front two teeth, spit and quit
  • I was going to, but got distracted by the cat
  • No, but if I tell you I did I won't get in trouble

Any parent foolish enough to accept that "yes" at face value deserves whatever dental bills are coming. We look the little tyke in the eye to see if they're lying to us. Are they squirming? Turning red? We rely on past behavior. Do they have a pattern of fibbing about this? We ask follow up questions like, "if I go check your toothbrush, will it be wet?"

Now, our remote teammates are not four year-olds. Yet, we don't always get proactive, forthright, precise answers to our closed questions. Let's take an all too common example.

You ask your team on a conference call, "does everyone understand what I've just told you?" or more generically, "does anyone have any questions?" You get some a couple of muted "yesses" and a lot of silence. Since nobody said anything, and they are all smart, honorable people, it's safe to assume that they understand and don't have any questions. Right?

Wrong. You know better. Those yesses (or more precisely the lack of aggressive "nos") could mean any number of things in the real world:

  • They actually understand everything you told them and have no questions
  • They think they understand, but don't want to take the trouble to clarify
  • They didn't hear the question because they were too busy planning for their next call in five minutes
  • They heard you, but don't want to ask embarrassing questions in front of the rest of the group
  • They know everyone has somewhere else to be right now. If they say "yes", the conversation continues. If they say "no", they get their lives back
  • If I don't actually say "no", it's not a lie, right? (See "omission, sins of")

Working remotely doesn't give us the multitude of non-verbal signals we get in the meeting room. We can't see the furtive looks around the room, the guilty head shakes, the deliberate gaze avoidance that tells us everything is not as it seems. We know it goes on in a traditional meeting setting, but for some reason we assume that verbal feedback in an online environment is somehow more honest and defined.

Get in the habit of asking open questions, and actually waiting for responses. Some tips to try:

  • Open questions tend to start with "why", "how" or sometimes "what" (as in "what do you think"… as opposed to "what is…"
  • Don't take silence as assent. Check your assumptions with a follow up question
  • Actively court objections. "What might stop us from doing these action items?" is a safe way of introducing objections without making it personal. Some managers are afraid of openly bringing negativity into the open, but isn't that what open communication is? Wouldn't you really rather hear what your team fears rather than assuming all is well?
  • Force yourself to ask "what questions do you have?" rather than "do you have any questions?" I often take the heat myself by asking "what haven't I explained clearly?". That puts the blame for miscommunication on myself even though I couldn't possibly have been too vague!

Because in the online world we lack the non-verbal communication cues, we have to increase the accuracy and scope of our verbal communication. Asking truly open questions, and listening for both the spoken and unspoken answers is one of the most important skills a manager of a remote team can exhibit.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.