A bit of advice offered by Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People reads, “Asking questions not only makes an order more palatable; it often stimulates the creativity of the person whom you ask. People are more likely to accept an order if they have had a part in the decision that caused the order to be issued.”
Carnegie suggest that instead of directly ordering people to do something, we should instead ask them questions about how we (as a team) can go about achieving the thing we want. This advice seems like it needs to be tied to specific situations in order for it to be practical. There are certainly times where requests need to be direct and even forceful to make sure appropriate jobs and tasks are completed accurately and timely.
However, if we are working on a creative project with multiple routes to completion, asking process questions might be a good approach. We could micromanage the project and interject at every point to make sure decisions were made in the way we wanted, or we could stand back and ask people what they thought would be the best approach and ask others what the pros and cons of each approach to reaching our goal might be. This seems to be the context that Carnegie envisioned for his advice.
With children, educators often encourage asking questions rather than telling answers. Instead of telling kids why the sky is blue, the advice is to ask children why they think the sky is blue, what could lead to it being blue, whether the sky is always blue or if its hue changes. These questions stimulate the mind and expand the conversation. Kids on their own probably won’t come up with an explanation of why the sky is blue and we will have to explain Rayleigh scattering
to them, but we can at least engage them more and help them work on critical thinking skills in ways that simply answering questions directly would not allow for.
When working in teams where we can give authority to others, we can encourage this same type of critical thinking and build such skills by asking questions rather than by micromanaging and giving directives. We can ask what others understand to be our main goals and ask others how they think their role within the project can support those larger. This gives others a chance to take ownership of their duties in ways that simply giving orders does not. Hopefully with them engaged and supportive of the final decisions they will grow and produce better outcomes on this and future projects.
Something interesting in a lot of human communication is how frequently we address something without saying anything explicit about the the thing we are addressing. We talk about one topic but are often implicitly or sneakily also talking about another thing. The front conversation is what we are actually saying and the literal words of our speech, but there is also a hidden back conversation taking place that others may or may not be aware of.
This type of communication can be very helpful for humans. We can hint at something or subtly reference a topic that may be seen as taboo in some cultures, groups, or settings. The way that people react to these quick and hidden references tells us a lot about who we are around and helps us shape the conversations we have, even if we are not consciously aware of the messages or even of other people’s reactions. Michael Bungay Stanier addresses one form of this hidden background conversation in his book The Coaching Habit when he looks at the way we use requests in the work place.
We often try to soften our conversation when giving people orders or requesting that people complete specific tasks. Saying “do this now” or “complete this by this date and time” can sometimes be too forceful or inappropriate depending on the work culture, group dynamics, and team member roles. One way, but certainly not the only way, we soften our speech is by using the word “want”. Bungay Stanier looks at “want” construction in his book and helps the reader think through what is being said in the background when we say something like “I want you to complete this by December 2nd.” His careful analysis is useful if our goal is to be more clear with our own communication in explaining what work needs to be done by a set deadline.
First, Bungay Stanier encourages us to look behind what is being said to try to understand why types of needs are driving the conversation. He writes, “You can see that recognizing the need gives you a better understanding of how you might address the want. And there’s a flip side to that as well. As you frame your own request for what you want, see if you can articulate what the need is behind the request.”
When someone above you in the organization says, “I would like to have that report done by the 2nd” he is asking you to complete something because he has some type of need behind the report. That underlying need is greater than the individual report, but your work helps support his need. In this way, the sub conversation is “we have an important meeting on the 4th, and we really need to show that we are well prepared going into that meeting. The data in the report is key to us having all the information we need, and we need to finish the report in time to give us a chance to review and prep for the meeting on the 4th.” Being aware of the why and understanding the sub-context helps us better address the actual request. We can take this awareness and use it in our own conversations so that we are making sure that the why behind our requests is not hidden and lost in a sub-conversation (although if your why behind a request is “to make me look good”, you may want to rethink your actions and initial request).