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No. 19 – Asking Helpful Questions

March 2, 2011

Perhaps one of the best things you can do to enhance the effectiveness of your communications is to ask helpful questions. This may sound surprising since we often think that effectiveness in communication is a matter of saying the right words, with the right tone and body language. My experience with health physicists indicates that we usually think of asking questions as a way of gaining more insight into the situation or order to provide helpful answers. But, that is not what I am referring to.

Health physicists are good at troubleshooting and often serve in supervisory/management roles that involve making decisions, solving problems, and giving answers. In these roles our first thought in a communication is often about getting enough data to resolve the issue, give an answer, and get on with the next item on our “to do” list. We usually ask questions to get control of the communication and lead it to a resolution. After all, isn’t this what we are paid the big bucks for? However, there is another option that might have more value in the long run, namely, asking questions to aid the other person in finding there own answers to solving their own problems.

If we assume that other people are seeking our help because they cannot find their own answers then we may see them as incapable. I would like to offer a different approach based on the following equation:
             Rt + Rs + Cp = TCOTL
This says that each person has the Right, Responsibility, and Capacity to Take Charge of Their Life. By this approach the HEALTH PHYSICIST, as manager/leader, serves as a guide to help others find their own answers. This is similar to the idea that it is better to teach a starving person how to fish rather than giving him a fish. The listener’s stance is based on the idea that listening is more important than solving other people’s problems for them.

Helpful questions to ask as a listener include the following.
  1) What is the situation?
  2) How would you like it different?
  3) What have you done to change the situation?
  4) What do you get out of keeping things the way they are?
  5) What options do you have?
  6) What do you plan to do?
  7) How can you sabotage your plan?

By this approach, the other person arrives at their own answers for which they also have a vested interest. When you give answers, they can be ignored or criticized.

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