In an age when much more is being written than spoken, appreciation for the tone of the written word is being lost. For example, a typical cryptic text or e-mail relies on emojis to communicate a serious, sarcastic, or playful tone. Even the craftiest emoji user loses subtle intended meaning.

When you're speaking, the words you stress can change the underlying meaning of a sentence. Look at the following question: Do you think he should lead the project? This simple question can have many levels of meaning based on the word you stress.

Consider the meaning of the following questions with the stressed word in bold. Read each question aloud and stress the word in bold:

1.      Do you think he should lead the project?

meaning: Somebody else thinks he should lead the project.

2.      Do you think he should lead the project?

meaning: What is your perspective?

3.      Do you think he should lead the project?

meaning: Are you sure about your perspective?

4.      Do you think he should lead the project?

meaning: Should somebody else lead the project?

5.      Do you think he should lead the project?

meaning: Has he earned the chance to lead the project?

6.      Do you think he should lead the project?

meaning: Can he handle the lead role?

7.      Do you think he should lead the project?

meaning: Are you sure about this particular project?

8.      Do you think he should lead the project?

meaning: Is he ready for a project lead role yet?

As you can see, this simple eight-word question can be interpreted in eight different ways, resulting in unreliable written communication. Today's information-rich, time- poor world forces us to write and speak more specifically and clearly than ever. If you do not, you're rolling the dice.

In the above illustration, you have just a one-in-eight, or 12.5 percent, chance that others will receive the same simple message you're sending. In addition, your tone and emphasis in communication create inference and judgment. So, when seeking to understand, use a neutral tone and equal emphasis of words to elicit an unfiltered and uninfluenced spoken response.

The way you ask a question reflects your mindset toward the person, situation, or task. Listen to your own questions. What do they tell you about your own mind- set? Your questions also create a window into your team member's mindset.

His or her answers will reveal his or her mindset, like history, assumptions, expectations, biases, and blind spots. These are valuable for you as a coach to see so you can more fully understand the employee's personal context within which he or she is operating. Equipped with this insight, you can adapt your questions and coaching approach.

Look at the subtle difference between these two questions:

  1. Are you going to meet the new, shorter project deadline?
  2. How might we meet the new, shorter project deadline?

Although these two questions are very similar, not only do they infer very different mindsets of the coach, but they also suggest very different options and degrees of openness to the employee. If you heard the first question, you would likely think you're in this alone, that there might not even be a possible solution, and if a solution exists, there is only one right answer.

Alternatively, the second question uses a simple but powerful lead-in phrase, "How might we . . .". The word how infers that a solution exists, so we are now motivated to find it. The word might suggests there is more than one way to solve the problem, so we can be creative in our approach, and we infers that the team will find a solution. Clearly, the second approach to asking this question inspires greater motivation, engagement, and creativity.

Asking the right questions is at the core of a coach's role. So, be purposeful about the questions you ask, and be intentional about how you ask them to ignite engagement for your team.

Published on: Oct 30, 2019
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