What’s Wrong with Telling?

I’ve been sharing my thoughts about conversations at work, in particular the advantages of asking questions.  We live in a culture of telling, where conversations become opportunities to show how smart or funny we are. While we ask questions to show interest in another person, we just as often want to sway them to our viewpoint or get something from them. This happens frequently at work where there may be a high level of competitiveness. And it also happens in families and community groups.

Are we becoming too achievement-focused for our own good?  Are we using conversations to tell people things rather than to ask them their point of view? When we always tell, we put other people in a position of inferiority they come to resent. One-way communication implies that they don’t know what we’re telling them and that they should already know it. This approach provokes defensiveness. People stop listening to you so they can work on a snarky comeback.

In contrast, asking questions temporarily empowers your conversation partners, giving them an opportunity to share what they know. You deliberately put yourself in the inferior position of wanting to know something about them. This technique opens the door to relationship-building.  Many of us do ask questions, but we fail to notice how disingenuous they are. When we ask leading or rhetorical questions, for example, we already know the answers. Our conversation becomes yet another exercise in telling.

 “When we become leaders, we feel that it is important for us to have answers rather than questions. Asking questions—or being unable to answer questions addressed to us—may show that we are somehow lacking as leaders. But this attitude leads to inertia.” ~ Michael J. Marquardt, Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask (Jossey-Bass, 2005)

Are you afraid that asking questions will be misinterpreted as a show of ignorance? Do you find it difficult to ask questions because people will think you don’t have all of the answers? Displaying this level of vulnerability is truly terrifying for many leaders. You have to make a choice:

  1. Risk appearing fallible by asking questions.
  2. Risk creating a culture where people wait to be told what to do.

In the work I do with executives, I’ve explored this question of why so many feel they always have to have all the answers… and why asking genuine questions can be so vulnerable.

What’s been your experience? I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.