If you lead a team of people, be they senior executives, managers or support staff, you might be unknowingly asking stacked questions. The end result is that you’re not likely to get the information that led you to ask the questions in the first place … and you might not even realize it.
There have been a lot of courtroom drama series on TV over the past few years that I’ve enjoyed, such as The Good Wife, Boston Legal and Suits. One scenario I’m sure everyone’s seen is the lawyer who’s pummelling a witness on the courtroom stand with a relentless, continual barrage of questions. It’s a technique that usually ends up with the witness getting rattled and confused and either being discredited or, in fine TV tradition, cracking under the pressure and confessing to the crime.
Well, listen closely to people at work when they’re asking questions and, chances are, you’ll hear many of them asking stacked questions, i.e. ones that come one right after another with no space in between that gives the other person a chance to answer.
Unlike the TV lawyer, it’s highly likely that your co-worker has no idea they’re doing this. The questions may not have any hard edge to them either, rather, the person is just trying to get some helpful information from the other party.
Here’s the problem … when you ask stacked questions, the person on the receiving end is likely to either:
1. Only answer the last question that is asked,
2. Only answer the question they feel most comfortable answering,
3. Provide an answer that tries to address all the questions but doesn’t really answer any of them.
Why does this happen? Let’s consider the person on the receiving end of the questions first:
It’s going to be rare that the person on the receiving end is 100% present, in a perfect Zen-like state of mind where they are listening to you without distraction, ego or filters. Like most of us, they’re probably going to have a lot of other things going on in their mind, be consciously or non-consciously thinking about their own interests (hello, Ego), and be hearing the questions through a set of filters built on the historical, emotional landscape of the relationship.
Expecting the person to fully track, process and respond to all of the stacked questions is unrealistic. So, the person just tries their best.
Now let’s consider the person who’s hearing the response to their stacked questions: their ability to be 100% present to the other person is likely just as compromised as their’s is.
So, here’s what the average person’s brain will do in this situation: if the brain registers an answer that corresponds to one of the questions that was asked, it closes the loop, i.e. a question was asked and a relevant answer was received. Done! Perhaps the person will probe deeper to get more information on that particular question, but their brain is not likely to take them back to address the other questions. In other words, because the brain is just trying to keep up with all of its thoughts — or “mind noise” — the brain just lumps all of the questions they asked as “the question” and that the questioned answered meant “all questions answered.”
At best, the person will later realize that they didn’t get all the information they were looking for and then go back to the other person to try again. It’s like going to put on a clean shirt and only then realizing that one of the stains you meant to get out was still there. It’s not the laundry machine’s fault that you forgot to take your time to ensure you individually pre-treated all of the stains you wanted taken care of, right? (Sigh) Rinse; repeat.
At worst, the person will never realize they didn’t get an answer to the other questions and forget about them, perhaps until it’s too late and it causes a problem — having the CEO point out in the senior staff meeting that you’ve got a mustard stain the size of Wisconsin on your shirt will do nothing to help your career.
So … what should you do?
Become as deliberate and practiced in asking one question at a time and giving space for as full a response as the hotshot TV lawyer is in using stacked questions as a cross-examination technique … unless, of course, you’re trying to get someone to confess to stealing your sushi from the lunchroom fridge.
Have a productive and enjoyable day.