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

A question that asks what you really want to know, and that makes it clear what evidence (or lack of evidence) is triggering the question, has a much greater chance of getting the answer you actually need. A question with context is better than a question all by its lonesome. 

We don’t answer what we’re asked

A flip side of the same issue is that we often don’t answer the question we’re asked. Sometimes, it’s because we’re trying to answer what we think they really mean, other times, it’s because we’re just lazy. 

Europa asks Bernice, “What’s the address for our meeting with the Guinness team?” Bernice answers, “I’m pretty sure it’s in the calendar invite.” Bernice has just added an additional back-and-forth to the exchange. She could have looked in the calendar invite herself (after all, she’s going to need the address too) and sent it to Europa. 

Of course, Bernice may have been subtly trying to train Europa to check the calendar invite. She can just say that: “The address is 1010 Anytown Lane. I’m pretty sure it’s in the calendar invite. If you didn’t check there, it would save us both time if you could look there first next time.” 

Conflict had come from differing knowledge.

What Bernice doesn’t know is that Europa did check the invite, but the calendar program had screwed up the address field making it unreadable. By answering the question as it was asked, everyone has the answer. By acknowledging that she didn’t know if Europa had checked the calendar invite or not, and then making the retraining comment explicit, all the assumptions and motives are on the table. Europa can simply reply, “Thanks! My calendar invite wasn’t readable, and of course I’ll check that first next time.”

On the way to Anytown Lane, Bernice and Europa reviewed their earlier exchange. Their conflict had come from differing knowledge. Bernice assumed the watering can had been full and the plants over-watered. Nope. Europa had only filled it halfway, and the plants were fine. Knowing both sides, Europa understood Bernice’s concern, and Bernice knew to check her assumptions next time. They arrived for the Guinness meeting with time to spare. The plants were so healthy and happy that Green Growing Things was awarded the world record. 

Communication can be tricky. When it comes to asking questions, we know why we’re asking and what’s triggering us to ask. The person we’re talking with doesn’t, however. By making your experience explicit and asking your real question, you’re more likely to get the response you want, with a minimum of drama. And when answering others’ questions, answer the question they asked, and then go on to address what you believe may have been the real question behind the question.

I’m Stever Robbins. Follow GetItDoneGuy on Twitter and Facebook. If you’re self-employed or run a small business and you want to finish certain tasks or projects more quickly, check out my “Get-it-Done Groups” that provide support and accountability for blasting through your blocks. Learn more at http://SteverRobbins.com

Image of miscommunication © Shutterstock


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.