Date
23 September 2017
Better communication would have helped find a more middle ground between opposing political camps in Hong Kong. Photo: Bloomberg
Better communication would have helped find a more middle ground between opposing political camps in Hong Kong. Photo: Bloomberg

A communication lesson from HK protest gridlock

Many of us have been surprised by some of the ill-considered comments made by members of the Hong Kong government and other public figures recently with regard to the protests on the streets.
Equally there has been disappointment at some of the answers given in relation to whether there is any chance of a review from Beijing on the decisions pertaining to the 2017 Chief Executive election.

It is an important topic that has generated a lot of emotion on both sides, and answers are needed. But equally, looking at the way some of the questions are asked, you know it is impossible for the interviewee to give anything but an answer that will enflame individuals further. This has proved to be the case as the answers have been blunt and showing little or no room for negotiation.

Could we not have found a more middle ground in this matter if the questions were better placed to allow some wiggle room?

As individuals, we spend a lot of time worrying about how to answer the questions that are posed to us in our everyday life, at work or at home. But the flip side to this is that we don’t always think about the questions that we are asking. By thinking and framing your question correctly, you can influence the level of success on what it is that you are trying to achieve, as well as constructively improve your communication.

How you pose a question can have a meaningful effect on how others will react to you. Poorly worded, one may not understand the context of the conversation. If the listener perceives the question as aggressive he may become wary or reply with aggression of his own.

There are some simple first steps to act as guidelines to assist you in being more aware of this facet of your speech. A common piece of advice is that closed questions should be avoided. Closed questions are those that drive the respondee towards a short article that may not elicit the best information. “Would you prefer to move to a new job or stay where you are?” In fact, the individual may have wanted to take up more responsibility in his current role and this may be a missed opportunity for development.

Here are some other elements that are worth thinking about when asking questions.

Avoid questions that create “them and us” situations or put people on the defensive. For example, “What’s the problem?” instantly suggests that there is one and also suggests that there is responsibility and blame. Starting questions with “Why” will always suggest you disagree and will create distance. Try asking open questions that invite contribution and infer collective responsibility, especially in a team situation at work.

If you are falling into not having to think about questions or are just copying something that you have heard, it may not be worth asking that question. The scenario where you see this time and time again is interviews. “What are your weaknesses?” It’s a set piece question that has no real value as no candidate will answer that honestly, and yet it makes it onto the roster many times.

A last point may be on the psychological preference to answer in the positive as exploited by cold calling salesmen everywhere.

If you know the response you prefer, try to frame the question in order to get a positive answer.
A good example of this was the Scottish Referendum in the United Kingdom this year. David Cameron made an error by allowing the key question on the referendum to be “Should Scotland be an independent country?”. The question begs the answer to be “yes” and to give plenty of positive encouragement to those exploiting that sentiment. Rewritten as “Should Scotland remain as part of the United Kingdom?”, it might not have caused the tension that it did.

As much as we might worry about the answers that we will give, if you want to become a stronger and more effective communicator it may pay to think hard about how you frame your question as well.

And who knows whether a more constructive set of questions could possibly result in some actual progress on the matter that is now dividing the citizens of Hong Kong.

Perhaps Voltaire the French playwright and philosopher had it right when he said “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers”.

A business trend observer, Tim Nicholls is Director at Paradigm Consulting and formerly Regional Communications Head at HSBC in Asia.

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RC

A business trend observer, Tim Nicholls is Director at Paradigm Consulting and formerly Regional Communications Head at HSBC in Asia.

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