It was a beautiful fall Friday afternoon, and my work calendar was pretty open.
I love to take walks with my wife, who worked across the street from me at the time and often got off work earlier in the afternoon.
“Maybe we could both get off early and take a walk before the kids get home from practice,” I thought to myself.
How great to start the weekend with a long walk, connect with my wife, get some exercise, then relax on the deck with a glass of wine.
I was so excited! So I texted her this message, “When are you getting off work?”
Within seconds my phone buzzed; “Why?”
What do you mean, why? I asked you a question! Just answer it!
I didn’t actually say this … but I thought it.
Has this ever happened to you? My mood turned on a dime. Instantly I went from excited with anticipation to slightly irritated and even a bit discouraged.
Then I reflected on what she might have been thinking:
“Did I miss something? Was I supposed to pick up the kids early from school? What does he want from me now? That was random!”
A million thoughts could have been going through her head for one simple reason:
I didn’t disclose my motive.
One of the single biggest communication mistakes is to ask a question without disclosing the motive behind the question.
It may seem simple but it’s critical.
Many times people have absolutely no idea what problem you are trying to solve with your question. As a result, the question comes across as “loaded” and may seem like a minefield for the recipient.
When you disclose your motive, the other person can be much more helpful.
Another common example:
You would love to invite your favorite couple over for dinner, so you ask them, “What are you doing tonight?” Loaded question because you didn’t disclose your motive.
What if they have something going on, but they’d be happy to cancel it to come over? What if they are free but really don’t want to come over? How would you answer?
Sometimes motives aren’t revealed for innocent reasons. Many times, however, the purpose is to avoid conflict or set up drama.
We avoid honest disclosure because we don’t want to deal directly with the potential for disagreement or the possibility of rejection. Sometimes we hide our motive as a test to see whether they care enough or are smart enough to get it right.
What I should have said was, “Honey, it’s a beautiful afternoon, and I’d love to take a walk with you before dinner. I can get off early from work. Would you be able to get off early as well?”
Then, she would have known exactly what my motive was and been able to offer an honest and helpful response. She may have made an effort to get off early, or declined my invitation. Either way, that’s OK.
This principle applies to in-person, texting and e-mail conversations. No exceptions. It may take a little longer in the short run. In the long run it pays off big time.
In my life it has dramatically improved communication, and often helps me recognize why I am not getting satisfaction when I ask people questions.
Disclosing the motives behind our questions increases transparency, integrity, authenticity and effective communication. It also increases the chance of positive conflict because it short-circuits passive-aggressive behavior.
Compassionate accountability starts with openness. Disclose the motives behind your questions and improve communication.
Nate Regier is CEO and co-founding owner of Next Element Consulting, a global leadership communication advisory and training firm based in Newton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 316-772-6174.
Interested in writing for “Business Perspectives”? Contact Tom Shine at email@example.com or 316-268-6268.