I came across an interesting article today that I wanted to share. It’s an article titled How to Ask Useful Questions. The article resonated with me, as many of the points the author made are similar to the preferences I have in communication.
This article was originally shared in my company by Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg. But my team lead also picked up on it and shared it in my team’s channel in Slack – our communication tool. A company’s operations are centered around communication. So, the more effective their communications can be, the more effective their operations should be also.
When I communicate with someone, I am asking them to choose me, to direct their time, energy and attention to me, temporarily deprioritizing any other competing demands they may have. This can be said with any communication – whether it be at work, or even in one’s private life. It can also be said with any method of communication – not just verbal communication.
For example, if you are one of my blog followers, then publishing this post would have sent you a notification, letting you know I’m wanting to communicate something with you. You would then decide how important reading this post is, amongst all the other things you have going on in your life right at that time. You must decide whether you’ll turn your attention away from those items now, or later, or never at all, to see what information I sent your way. The title of my post, and possibly the excerpt noted in the email, would have shared some information as to what I am wanting to communicate in this post. They would have (hopefully) assisted you in deciding where to prioritize reading this post in amongst your other activities.
Effective communication starts by realizing one is asking of another’s resources (time, energy, etc.) to share information with them. When you have this mindset, then you start to phrase your questions differently.
Do you have a few minutes? I’d like to call you about something.
This doesn’t include enough context for the other person to respond adequately. What is the conversation going to be about? How much time/energy should this other person expect to transfer from something else they were doing to this new conversation? How does that compete with the other priorities they have in their life right now?
I’ve been faced with a decision between A and B. I believe you had a similar situation regarding C, and would like to hear any advice you might have. Would you be available to have a D minute conversation about this within the next few days? If not, that’s fine, too.
This is a much more effective start to the conversation. The receiver has a good idea what the conversation will be about, what the sender expects to receive from the conversation, and how much time and energy they are requesting from the receiver. The question is also respectful to the fact that each party may have conflicting demands that may or may not allow them to prioritize this amongst everything else they are doing. The sender has communicated they would need a response in the next few days. At the same time, they leave room for the receiver to either accept or decline to responding in the manner the sender is wanting, depending on what other demands they may have.
The initial request would take more time to write out. But there are a few benefits to this:
- The sender will first need to clarify in their own mind what information they exactly need – something we can often forget to do when panicking in the moment
- It saves messages going back and forth for each party to come to a common understanding of what the conversation’s goal is, and how they are going to get there – none of which is the actual advice the sender was hoping to receive through the conversation anyway
- Explaining the situation in one message saves time in the long run for both sides – neither have to pause what they are doing to read the next trickle of information that comes in
As a site note – intimate conversations may not happen quite like this. When someone is hurt and needing compassion, what they require can sometimes be a listening ear, or another’s presence beside them, as they work out the thoughts in their mind. But there is still a similarity – the fact they are asking for the listener to direct time, energy and attention to them, temporarily deprioritizing any other competing demands they may have.
Effective communication is a skill that must be practiced and acquired. The article How to Ask Useful Questions was a good reminder of that.