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Asking the right question is the first step in effective communication

I was talking to an auditor one day. He asked me “When your client bought these widgets, were they on sale-or-return basis?

Well then, where’s the statement that shows how much is owing to the supplier?
Oh,” I said, “so your first question really should have been ‘can you show me the statements from the widget supplier?’
That’s what I asked,” he said.
Now you know why I’ve stopped dealing with auditors.
We talk about the need for effective communication (and I have a great tool for you, but I’ll tell you later) and yet we listen badly and many of us ask poor questions. More often than not, our conversations with people are conducted partly in our heads before they are conducted with other people.
I think the conversation in that auditor’s head went something like this:-
– That’s funny, I can’t find a supplier statement for those widgets.
– I can see payments being made, and income from selling them but there doesn’t seem to be a pattern.
– Maybe there’s a non-standard contract for them.
– I wonder what that non-standard contract could be?
– Perhaps it’s on consignment or sale-or-return?
– I need a supplier statement but if they’re on sale-or-return maybe there’s no statement?
– I’ll ask him: “So are the widgets on a sale-or-return basis?”
Huh? I’m sorry but I’m not telepathic. Ask the right question and that could be the start of a beautiful friendship (sorry Humphrey Bogart).
Effective communication is about ensuring that you are understood, but first ensuring that you understand. So, lay out the premises and assumptions first, or else ask very precise questions about what you want. Use closed questions (“Do you have a statement?”) that requires a yes or no answer to define what is possible, then use open questions (“What is the process around those purchases?”) that allows exploration of the circumstances.
Ultimately though, if in order to be understood you must first understand, you need to listen effectively in order to communicate effectively.
Here is a great tool to help with effective communication that starts with listening, and it’s called LACE.
It’s an acronym for Listen effectively, Acknowledge what you hear, Check and confirm your understanding, and Explore the idea.
First, listen effectively.
You can only listen effectively if your mind is focused on the speaker. How many of us attempt to multi-task while talking on the phone? Perhaps you are typing out an email as you converse, or you’re gesturing to someone in the room. Even face to face, how much of you is actually listening to what is being said rather than preparing to answer?
So the first step is to pay attention as someone else is speaking. Do not try to work out what your reply is – just listen!
Second, acknowledge what you hear. This is related to the first principle.
Have you ever spoke to someone who either looks out the window while you are speaking, or just looks at you with a blank stare? It’s hard to know if they are actually listening isn’t it? When you are listening, listen actively by nodding, acknowledging by saying “yes” or “uh-huh”. Doing this will not only create an interactive experience for the speaker assuring them that they are being heard, but also tune your mind ands body to understand what it is they are actually saying. You focus.
Third, check for confirmation.
At the appropriate pause, ask “So when you said ‘statement’ did you mean a monthly statement or any statement?” Or confirm facts, premises and opinions – get to know what they actually mean and where they are coming from in terms of a starting point.
This can remove confusion, ensure you both are on the same page, and it readies you to formulate a reply that is actually appropriate and…yup, focused.
Finally, explore the idea. It is only once you have heard exactly what it is they are saying, understood their premises and assumptions, can you decide to explore if there are other possibilities. Many people listen while composing a reply and in doing so ask and answer a lot of “what-if” questions in their mind. Leave the exploration until you know where you stand.
It’s actually important to take the steps in order – Listen, then/and Acknowledge what is being said, then Check for understanding, then and only then Explore. Don’t be tempted to jump the sequence!
When I talk to that auditor again – and let it be a long time before I do – whatever he asks I’ll remember to say “What is it you actually need?”
Indeed the right question is the first step in effective communication, but it needn’t be the first question!
Now, it’s time for you to ask the right question.
Get over to https://teikoh.com and leave me a question or a comment. While you’re there, leave your name and email and I’ll make sure you get new tips, tools and resources to grow your business sent directly to your inbox.

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