There’s a big difference between asking direct questions and softening your questions to suit your business partner and the situation. And since you read my articles regularly, you know I write about being concise – OFTEN. But sometimes using fewer words can backfire.
One of my clients told me that he offended a business partner recently. I was surprised because this client is a good communicator even though English is not his first language. When I asked for more information, my client told me he had asked many questions that required his business partner, a manager in the company, to admit there were gaps in the process and that errors had occurred as a result. Finding out there were gaps and errors was not the issue. Rather, the issue was that the manager felt that my client had attacked him and had made the meeting feel like an interrogation.
We all ask a lot of questions every day to get the information we need: to move forward on a task, to determine how a process works, to find out if someone is a good fit for the company. Often though, rather than thinking of questioning strategy and language in advance, we simply blurt out the questions on the topics we know we need to cover. And therein lies the risk.
Direct questions can be perceived as being confrontational. Softening our questions helps us be less so. Why is that important? Because in some situations, being direct can negatively impact a business relationship. And usually, we want to maintain or build a business relationship WHILE getting the information we need, rather than getting the information at the expense of a business relationship.
It’s also important to consider that there is a tendency in some cultures to be more direct. Some people may even think that softening language is a waste of time and energy. Fair enough…
But when someone with that tendency to be direct speaks to a business partner from a culture that tends to feel that direct questions are unusual and even rude, the outcome may be less than desired. You may not get the result you want, and you may damage the relationship irreparably in the process.
Reword to reduce perceived aggression
Here’s an example of softening your questions:
- Original: “Why did you choose this sample?”
- Softened: “What steps did you take to make sure that your sample was representative of the whole population?”
While the softened question is longer, it asks for the same information. This longer question avoids the ‘why’ question, which is often perceived as aggressive and puts the person being questioned on the defensive.
Open up your questions
Opening up closed questions can also be a way to soften your questions and be less confrontational.
- Original: “Did you sign the form as required?”
- Opened: “What procedures were performed to ensure this form was filled out as required by the Guideline?”
Short, positive introductory elements
Adding an introductory element to your sentence can also soften a question enough to make it less direct. The question becomes longer, and sometimes turns into a statement rather than a question. Try adding elements like “I was wondering how you…” or “Could you please tell me how you…”
Add soft skills to your communication toolkit
So next time you are getting ready to ask your business partner some questions, think about what information you need and HOW you should be asking for it. Consider:
- What is the current situation?
- What is my relationship to this person?
- How important is it that we maintain a good professional relationship?
- What national cultural tendencies might come into play?
- What information do I need to move forward and achieve my objective?
And then decide on how to construct your questions to achieve the desired outcome AND maintain a positive business relationship.
Share a situation with me in the comments below where softening your questions led to a more successful meeting or positive outcome. I look forward to hearing from you!
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