Larsen is a Senior Mediator at the Center for the Resolution of Disputes. She is the Co-Founder of Beyond Civility.
Talking with a close friend or colleague, conversation usually flows unguarded. The verbal interchange that carries us forward, asking questions, disclosing what is important about our lives, flows without risk of a misstep. But in a different setting, the art of asking questions may call for being mindful and deliberate.
When negotiating, seeking to bring someone toward a desired destination and avoid a defensive response, the tone of voice of the inquiry, even the quality of eye contact needs to be free of all criticism or judgment. The distinctions can be subtle.
Ask: tell me about that (open, accepting), not: Do you really believe that (veiled belligerence).
Ask: would it be useful for me to explain my reasoning (respect, consultation), not: Do you understand my point (intelligence called into question).
When a professional or intimate relationship is troubled, and discussion of an important issue has too long been avoided, either fearing a negative reaction which will only make things worse, or because embarrassment impedes honesty, before the question is asked, consider saying: I think we need to have a difficult conversation.
By offering another even just a moment to prepare, the respect shown by not taking one unaware may set the stage for willing consideration of the concern at hand. And for those times when both conversation partners may be off balance, just acknowledging this at the outset can avoid a defensive response, or a closed door.
And here’s another rule it might be sound to consider: some questions are best left unasked:
Do you think I’ve put on weight?