How to ask a question without pissing someone off

By: Ariana Friedlander Monday April 29, 2019 0 comments Tags: Ariana Friedlander

By Ariana Friedlander
I was recently working with a client who was trying to shift the interaction dynamics with their boss. You might be familiar with this type of scenario. The boss wants meetings to be as quick and efficient as possible because time is money. Therefore, it is best to agree and questions are not tolerated as they are "a waste of time."friedlander-blog-photo.fixed
This can be a difficult situation to navigate and lead to costly miscommunication. In fact, an SMB study found that poor internal communication costs the average business $26,000 a year per employee in lost productivity. 
So, just imagine, you are my client. You want to deliver. You want to wow your boss. You want to exceed his expectations. Only, you're having a hard time getting clarity about the parameters of the project because you can't ask questions without eliciting a defensive retort of what he just said (last I checked, repeating what you just said in a louder more domineering tone does not lead to understanding -- but that's an article for another day).
In Conversational Intelligence we practice the essential, asking questions for which you have no answer because researchers have shown that open-ended questions engage the pre-frontal cortex. But in some instances, like the one I shared above, questions can be triggering. You might be curious, how does one gather more information and insights into a situation with someone who does not react well to questions....
It's as simple as starting out by saying, "I'm curious...." 
For example instead of saying "What's your area of expertise?" (a question I myself feel is off putting), you can say, "I'm curious to learn about your background and the experiences that led you here today."
Another non-question question is to simply say, "Tell me more..."
For example, your boss comes to you after some personnel problems have been discovered and says, "We need to deal with this." And instead of asking, "how?" you respond, "Tell me more about what dealing with this means to you."
While asking open-ended questions can be a powerful way to improve communication, it is important to know your audience and be tactful. Sometimes the best way to get clarity, gather more insight and work towards a win-win-win solution is by guiding the conversation using a line of inquiry without asking questions. It is essential to do all this while remaining genuinely curious and open to learning, instead of asking a question as a way of proving your point. 
Think about those times your parents asked with indignation, "What were you thinking?" Or that instance when your boss disappointingly asked, "Why did you do it like that?" In these circumstances, open-ended questions become triggering because of the tone of voice. If you're asking a question while feeling angry, judgmental, disdain, frustration or dissatisfaction, it will be apparent in your tone and make the receiver of the question feel bad. 
In summary, if you want to ask a question without pissing someone off, approach them first with genuine curiosity and openness to learning. Then, experiment with a line of inquiry without posing a question.
From there, you might want to look inward to explore how that went and identify lessons learned to apply moving forward.
Ariana Friedlander

About the Author: Ariana Friedlander

Ariana Friedlander is the founder and principal of Rosabella Consulting, LLC, and has more than nine years of experience working with small businesses, nonprofits and government agencies to create strategies for successful organizational growth.