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Want to Communicate Effectively? Ask What vs. Why

Want to Communicate Effectively?  Ask What vs. Why

By Mary Lippitt

At first glance, exchanging information, meaning, and messages among team members appears deceptively simple. After all, you know each other and share common goals. Nonetheless, communication and misunderstanding often continue.  The drive to get to the heart of the matter often has us make assumptions in order to quickly fill in the blanks. And these hasty conclusions tend to depend on a personal motivational filter, more than an open and rational analysis.

Effective communication takes analysis to understand what is being said, before trying to understand why it is being said.  While working as a consultant with an executive team it became clear during a strategy meeting that the CEO and his staff were talking past each other. The staff viewed the new direction and rejection of current practices as an effort for him to make his mark. The CEO attributed the opposition to jealousy or collusion. He had only focused on why they resisted, instead of what facts and trends caused their objections.

Communication problems can be kept manageable if we start with an analysis of what drove a recommendation, rather than trying to decode why an idea was being advanced. If your team is struggling with effective communication:

  • Probe the basis behind proposals by asking what questions instead of why questions.  You may be surprised at what you discover.
  • Detect what business priority currently drives decision-making.  Perhaps something is going on that you don’t know about.
  • Separate idea generation and analysis from the evaluation process.  They are two different concepts and need to be treated as such.
  • Demonstrate respect by actively listening without interruptions but with time limits.  You want to be heard, and so do your colleagues.
  • Recognize that plans are subject to change as circumstances shift, and that requires us to be agile and proactive.  It really may be time for a change.  Be open.

Bonus Tip: Reducing power, or title difference, though a round table, or by having the leader withhold comments until the end is a successful strategy to assure everyone will be heard and acknowledged.
Mary - BB book
Mary Lippitt- HeadshotDr. Mary Lippitt, renowned CEO and founder of Enterprise Management Ltd., holds a D.B.A. and boasts an impressive career spanning over three decades. As a respected member of the American Society of Training and Development, she’s widely recognized for her book, “Brilliant or Blunder: 6 Ways Leaders Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity, and Complexity.” In the industry, Lippitt’s influential strategies continue to guide leaders through business complexity and change.