Staff Communications: How Phrasing Questions Can Make or Break You


Effective staff communication is essential for managers. But the quality of the information you receive is determined by the questions they ask. Some managers believe that they merely have to ask. They’ll be told what they need to know. If only it was as easy as that…!

What You Deserve

Let me repeat. The quality of the information you receive from staff will be directly related to the quality of the questions you ask. Sloppy, imprecise questions attract sloppy, imprecise answers. Some managers think that because they’re managers, staff will tell them exactly what they need to know. Sadly, it just isn’t so.

The Information Killer: “Why?”

You’ve probably been told “Always ask ‘why’ “. It’s not such a good idea. “Why” invites opinions and opinion based explanations. In extreme cases it may attract mere speculation. “Why?” doesn’t attract facts. “Why” is something you should deduce from the information you receive. You can then check your deduction with others.

Ask questions starting with “What, how, who, which, when.” You’ll learn more by asking “What happened to him?” rather than “Why is he lying on the floor in a pool of blood?”

Don’t Accept What You’re Told

Your staff are not necessarily as articulate as you’d like.  Sometimes they don’t express themselves clearly. Sometimes they’re trying to protect themselves or others. Sometimes they just don’t have an answer but try to sound as if they do. Sometimes they’re under peer pressure you’re unaware of. Don’t just accept what they tell you. Ask questions for clarification.

Learn to paraphrase. Repeat back to staff in your words what you think they said and meant. Say “Are you saying that …?” “Do you mean that …?” Paraphrasing is an essential tool for the modern manager.

Avoid including your opinion in the question. “Do you think the rain was responsible?” is virtually saying what you already think. It’s better to ask, “What do you think caused the crash?”

Learn The Value Of Silence

Ask and wait. Surprisingly, the longer the silence the more likely you are to get an answer. Once you’ve asked your question, shut up and wait for an answer. Avoid prompting. If you prompt when you ask questions, “Is it because …?” you’re telling staff the answer you’re expecting. That’s what they’ll give you. Be patient in the pursuit of reliable information.


Questions and answers are part of the fabric of the modern workplace. Staff often have information to help managers make important decisions. Phrase your questions properly. Paraphrase intelligently. Be patient in waiting for answers. And avoid the killer “why?” You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the quality of information you get.

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