The Monk's Method: It’s not only what you say, it’s how you say it.
In delivering communication skills training workshops to various groups over the past fifteen years, I often tell the following funny story to illustrate how people asking a question can determine the answers they get. I call this questioning technique, "The Monk's Method."
Two monks were praying, walking, and talking as they do all day long. The junior monk said to the senior monk. "I'm surprised you're allowed to smoke while walking around and praying here in the monastery my dear brother. When I joined the monastery I asked our Head Monk about smoking and his answer was a resounding no. How come you are able to smoke with no problem?
The senior monk smiled and said, "Am I right to assume, my dear brother, that you asked the Head Monk whether it was alright for you to smoke while praying?
"Yes," said the junior monk. "I asked him whether it was alright for me to smoke while praying, and he looked at me disapprovingly and said, "Of course not. I'm surprised you would even ask."
"Ah!," exclaimed the senior monk. "You didn't know how to ask my dear brother. It all depends on how you put it. When I joined the monastery, I too asked the Head Monk about smoking, but in a slightly different manner. I asked him: "Dear Master, Is it alright for me to pray while smoking?" And he said, "But of course my son. You can pray anytime."
In asking questions, as well as in all other aspects of communication, it's not what you say that counts, but how you say it. And when it comes to influencing and persuading it may be the focus of your words that is heard. How do your message come across when giving feedback or reacting to someone’s idea? What’s the difference in the message received between these two examples:
1) Boy, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. It’s not even close to meeting what I’m looking for. OR
2) That’s a different take on the problem than I was operating with. Can you share more about the logic you used to arrive at this suggestion?
The first response attacks the person on a personal level. The second response probes the merit(s) of the idea or suggestion and how the proposal addresses the total problem to be resolved.
What is at risk based on the choice between these two responses? The first response risks putting the contributor on the defensive, on a personal level. They may withdraw and become preoccupied with looking for opportunities for retribution instead of actually fixing the problem. The second response recognizes that this situation is one of many future collaborations with this contributor. It stays professional and explores the suggestion and not the person. It may be a “teachable moment”. The choice should be a conscious choice and not a knee-jerk reaction.
Since communication is a part of almost everything we do at work, making good choices of not only what we say; but how we say it is important to remember.