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Conflict Resolution: How to Avoid Unproductive Questions

When working through employee conflict, some questions can bring the meeting to a screeching halt, or make it difficult for your employees to work constructively. Good questions expand, explore, and create, while unproductive questions tend to minimize, limit, and place blame. The following kinds of questions should be avoided.

Leading questions

Simply put, leading questions are your answers with a question mark tacked on to the end for good measure. Often, people ask these questions with the best of intentions, trying to provide insight or options, but in actuality, leading questions limit the creativity and ability of your employees to come up with their own solutions. Some examples:

  • Have you ever considered getting some training in the new software?

  • Can you think of any reason why you wouldn’t want to share resources with Bill?

  • Couldn’t you come in at another time and take care of the paperwork then?

Assumptive questions

Assumptive questions assume that the answer to the question is obvious. In addition to being limiting and closed-ended, they tend to create negative reactions in listeners and usually shut down the conversation, rather than expanding it.

  • You realize your actions make you look really unprofessional, right?

  • Don’t you want to have a successful career here?

"Why" questions

Questions that begin with the word “why” rarely give you anything from the listener other than defensiveness. And with good reason! Essentially, you’ve asked the listener to defend the position he holds, or the actions he has taken, rather than discussing what’s important to him about the positions and actions.

“Why” questions don’t allow for an answer that provides much of anything except for excuses and defensiveness, and they often elicit nothing more than an “I don’t know” from the listener. Plus, they run the risk of making people feel like kindergarteners being scolded by the principal. For example:

  • Why did you write that e-mail to accounting?

  • Why didn’t you call Christina to tell her about the change to the staff meeting?

  • Why did you think Reece would be okay with that?

With the right inquisitive tone, some “why” questions may be okay (especially in private meetings). But instead of fretting whether you’ve mastered the correct tone, you can simply use an imperative statement if you think finding out why an employee did what she did will help you understand her perspective: “Tell me about the e-mail to accounting.”

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