Have you ever read/saw Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead? It’s an amazing play turned into a very good movie about two of the throwaway characters in Hamlet whose claim to fame is that they are outwitted by the brooding prince and executed in England.
In one scene, the two play a game called “Questions” – they must, not so surprisingly, only speak in the form of questions. Hesitation, statements, or non sequiturs are not allowed. If someone goofs, the other person scores a point (or forfeits, or however you want to play it).
In the play, the scene is meant to further illustrate the limits of language and futility in seeking existential knowledge. But what it also does is remind us of the POWER of asking questions.
As leaders and as employees, we can benefit from playing our own version Questions when holding important conversations or when confronted with a potentially sensitive situation. These conversations are filled with potential land mines – your innocent statement or observation could set the other person off because you didn’t know where they were coming from.
Forcing yourself to focus on questions rather than statements has a number of benefits. You signal you’re willing to listen. Good questioning invites the other person in. Questioning indicates you’re seeking understanding, rather than imposing your interpretation of events. When you ask questions, you actually have to listen to what the other person is saying, so that your next question makes sense in the context of the conversation. And an added bonus, asking questions increases the chance that the other person might find their own solution.
There is, however, an art to using the questioning technique effectively. After all, simply asking “How did that make you feel?” or “So you’re saying that customer was rude to you?” can sound condescending if that’s all you say. Just follow the Questions rules:
- No statements: Move the conversation forward with a question rather than your own statement. [And yes, I know that you will have to use SOME statements. Just try to minimize them.]
- No repetition: Stay engaged, pay attention. If you find yourself repeating the other person’s words back to them, or ask the same question over and over, RE-ENGAGE.
- No synonyms: It’s just a fancy way of repeating. Show off.
- No rhetoric: The intent of the questions is to seek clarity, not to stump the other person. Does this mean every question you ask will be answered? No. But you should give them a fair chance.
So the next time you are in a scenario that could get messy, try following Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s example. Give yourself a deduction every time you break the rules and see how it turns out. You might be surprised that all it took to defuse the situation was a few good questions.
“Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.”
― Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead