The problem with assumptions is that most of us don’t realise we’ve made them until they turn out to be wrong.
We all make assumptions about others that instantly shape our attitudes and behaviour towards them. It can be hard to make adjustments later on.
That’s part of the human condition, of course.
There will always be a gap between the way we perceive others, and the full truth of who they are – just as there will always be a gap between the way we are perceived, and the impression we mean to create.
But we can do a lot to reduce that gap.
By listening well, staying open to possibility, and being prepared to adjust our communication style as we go along.
The key to all of that is to test your assumptions.
In other words, ask questions.
Of course, the answers you get won’t necessarily be either truthful or clear. You can’t control the other person’s choices about that, naturally. But you can adjust the manner of your questioning.
Most people are confident that they know the difference between an open and a closed question.
A closed question isn’t just a question that has a Yes/No answer; it’s a question that has a specific answer.
“When’s the deadline?”
“Who is the decision-maker?”
“What time is the meeting?”
– these are all closed questions, and it’s a mistake to think that they are always a bad thing.
Far from it. Closed questions have their place. And they sometimes receive an expansive answer in any case.
The important thing is to fit them alongside open questions, according to where you are in the conversation.
Open questions are useful… well, for opening.
“How are you?” is an open question (even if you don’t necessarily want more than a one-word answer!).
“What’s been happening with Project X lately?” is another one.
They help get the ball rolling, by encouraging a person to explore or expand on a subject and provide you with material into which, later on, you may want to probe further.
Open questions begin with ‘What’, ‘How’, ‘Why’.
And invitations like ‘Tell me about…’ or ‘Please explain…’ open up a subject in the same way.
Having explored a topic by using open questions, you’ll probably reach a point where you need more specifics. That’s when closed questions come into their own:
“Where do you plan to implement this strategy first?”
You may very well need to switch from a closed question like that back to an open one: “Why do you see that as the priority?” So each response you get… determines your next question.
Sounds soooo obvious.
But how many business conversations have you ever had in which you get the distinct feeling that you’re being marched through the other person’s prepared list of questions, without your answers having any real effect upon what they ask next? (Heaven forfend that you should ever be guilty of that…)
Questions of any sort also need to be asked one at a time.
That may sound obvious too – but it’s common, particularly if the conversation is tricky, to ask a question, immediately followed by another, and another, and another, without ever giving the person a chance to answer.
“So why did you present this report in this way – did you not think it would have been clearer to include the most recent statistics, or did you not have those to hand; I mean don’t you realise how important it is to chase them up…?”
… and so on, and so on.
Many people find tricky conversations… well, tricky. And they get nervous about confrontation.
That nervousness can easily translate itself into an inability to shut up.
So they ask a question – and immediately give a possible answer, then a series of further closed questions, all beginning with ‘or’.
It’s much more effective to ask one succinct question, then Zip The Lip.
Even if it means you have to wait.
Because eventually, the other person will answer.
Resist the temptation to fill that gap yourself; you’ll be letting them off the hook! And they can then sit back and let you do all the talking – because they can sense that you’re more afraid of silence than they are.
Just let the silence hang.