Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once stated, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Have you ever found this to ring true as you think back on some of your conversations with your employees? I can remember a few times in my career where I had to address a behavior or performance issue with an employee and the honest response I got back was, “I didn’t know I was supposed to be doing that.” Frustrated, I realized that all too often the message I thought I was communicating wasn’t the message that was heard by others. Why does this happen and what can we do to communicate more effectively in the future?

To answer, first consider whose responsibility it is to ensure that what is said is correctly understood. Is it the speaker’s responsibility or that of the listener? If you’re the speaker, you might say that it’s the listener’s responsibility, having myself made such comments as, “You’re just not listening, or you’re not hearing what I’m saying.” However, the listener probably would be thinking, “I don’t understand a word you’re saying” or worse yet not say anything and just slowly nod their head and remain totally lost. To ensure that our message is received in the same way that we intended it, we have to take responsibility for both how it is delivered and how it will land.

In order to do so, we first have to understand our audience. Susan Scott, an author on communication, illustrated the point as if we were all standing on a beach ball, but each person is standing on a different color section and sees and hears all things in terms of that color. To ensure our message isn’t lost in translation, we must identify what “color” the person we’re talking to is standing on and put our message in terms that will be relevant and meaningful to them. A good way to do this is through the use of exploratory questions. For example, if your intent is to communicate that a technician’s van needs to be clean every Monday, you could use the following questions: “How do you think having a clean truck would improve your performance on your jobs this week? Do you think that increase in performance is worth the effort to clean the truck? Can we come to an agreement that your truck will be cleaned every Monday for inspection so that you can maximize your performance in the way you mentioned?”

This example not only shows how questions can help you to better understand your listener’s point of view, but shows how effective the use of questions can be at conveying thoughts. A mentor once told me, “Never tell what you can ask.” So often we’re pressed for time and feel that we can save a few seconds by not ‘beating around the bush’ and instead just bluntly telling others what we need or want them to do. However, simply dictating the message robs the listener of the opportunity to create personal ownership around the idea. No idea is more powerful than the one we come up with ourselves, so take the time to help your listener develop the same conclusion. By using effective questions, you will not only create ownership around an idea in your listener but you will deepen your own understanding of those you engage and ensure that your communication is more than just an illusion.