How to Avoid Misunderstandings When Asking Questions

When asking or answering questions, make your underlying assumptions and motives explicit. You'll get and give answers more quickly, and avoid all kinds of potential emotional landmines.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #496

image showing how to avoid misunderstanding

Today, we’re going to be talking about clear communication. Specifically, questions.

It’s been a rough day at Green Growing Things, Bernice’s little plant shop, which specializes in hard-to-find species like the carnivorous Audrey IIs. The store is in the running for first place in the Guinness Book of World Records for healthiest Audrey IIs raised with no inadvertent missing persons reports. The inspection team is due to arrive in just a few minutes. 

Bernice is beside herself checking last-minute details. “Europa!” she screams, “Why did you water the Audrey IIs so much?” Europa, who is usually the cashier and not the plant caretaker, is puzzled. “What are you talking about?” “The entire watering can is empty! How could you be so careless?” responds Bernice. As you can imagine, the conversation devolves from there.

We don’t ask what we mean

I’ve noticed over the last several years that often we—and by “we,” I mean, almost everyone, including me!—don’t ask what we really want to know. 

What Bernice is actually concerned about is whether the Audrey IIs have been over-watered. But she didn’t ask that. Instead, she asked Europa’s reason for watering the plants so much. While sometimes, it might be obvious what she really wants to know, an awful lot of the time it actually isn’t. 

We have hidden context

When we ask a question, we have a mental context for the question. We know some things. We don’t know others. We have certain goals. And all of that is invisible to the person we’re asking. It’s rather astonishing that any successful communication happens, ever.

Bernice’s goal is to have healthy plants. As it happens, the only information she has is a big watering can that’s totally empty, sitting next to the Audrey II holding pens. She has assumed that the can was full, and that all the water was used to water the plants.

Check your assumptions

Before you ask a question, especially if you’re upset, do a quick mental inventory. Ask “what’s my real concern?” and see if you can make your question directly reflect what you need to know. Ask “what’s the evidence that prompted my question?” and include that, too, if it makes sense.

Instead of “Why did you water the Audrey IIs so much?” Bernice’s real concern is whether they’re over-watered. She can ask instead, “I’m concerned that we keep the plants healthy. I saw the empty watering can and want to know if it’s possible you over-watered the plants?” She incorporates her goal (healthy plants), what she knows (there’s an empty watering can), and her real question (whether the plants have been over-watered).

Some other examples of questions we might ask, and the real question we want answered:

  • “How is the inventory coming along?” becomes “I haven’t seen the inventory status report yet. Are we on track to get it done by our month-end deadline?”
  • “Have you called your prospect, yet?” becomes “I haven’t heard about Prospect X, so I don’t know our revenue status. Are we on track to meet our sales goals?”


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.