7 Questions That Help Conversations Move Forward

by Jennifer Miller on February 2, 2012

in Communication, Leadership

The other day I attended a webinar led by Al Switzler, co-author of the books Crucial Conversations and Influencer. During the webinar Al made this point about interacting with colleagues:

If your response to frustrating conversations is to increase the frequency of your key point or the volume of your delivery, but you don’t change the content of your message, then you will remain stuck in your current situation. 

This is especially true in a leader-follower dynamic. Think about someone you lead who you don’t see eye-to-eye with. Do you seem to be having the same tired old conversation again and again? Do you think that if you could just somehow make your point in a way that’s more appealing, then surely this person will see your point of view?

That’s not how it works.

In fact, I’d bet that each time you repeat this conversation, each of you gets more entrenched in your original position. It’s like being stuck in the mud— trying harder to release yourself from the muck only sinks you in deeper. It’s human nature. We hold on to our convictions—long past the time they are reasonable and even when factual information bears out our misguided thinking.


You can’t wear somebody down with the same argument that they’ve been consistently resisting over time. You need to try a different conversational approach.

When you find yourself mired in the same conversational pattern, try these questions to help get the conversation unstuck:

  1. What has to happen in order for you to feel comfortable considering what I’m asking for?
  2. What is it about my suggestion that seems unreasonable to you? How can we modify it to make it more palatable to you?
  3. In what areas of this discussion do we agree?
  4. What is your main concern about [topic being discussed]? If we could successfully address that concern, how likely would you be to move forward with this?
  5. Here is where I see our commonalities [list them]. Here is where I see our differences on this topic [list them]. What can we do to bridge these differences?
  6. Let’s list the pros and cons of our respective viewpoints and see if we can draw out the commonalities.
  7. I’m not sure I understand what you mean. Would you please say that in a different way?

You’ll notice that all of these phrases are very open-ended. They invite conversation. Keep in mind that the goal of asking these questions is to understand the other person’s viewpoint, not to “sell” them on your viewpoint. If you return to persuading, then you’ve tossed yourself right back in the mud.

Getting a follower on board with your idea (or company policy, department paperwork, etc.) can be a lengthy process. Any response on your part that smacks of “because I said so” will only set you further back on the path. The next time you find yourself in a conversation that sounds oh-so-familiar, break out of the pattern and try a different conversational approach. You may just find yourself unstuck in no time.

Discussion question: what are some of your favorite phrases for getting people conversationally “unstuck”?


 photo credit: istockphoto.com © Daniel Kurz





{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Guy Farmer February 2, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Great post Jennifer. It’s so valuable for people to realize that they can move the conversation in a more productive direction by making small shifts like asking open-ended questions. It also feels much better to communicate from a position of trying to understand the other person.

Jennifer Miller February 3, 2012 at 12:34 pm


Welcome to The People Equation! I’d delighted to have someone from the educational community weigh in on this topic. You mention that teachers feel the need to defend their actions– I would add that ALL professionals at one time or another feel the need to defend their actions. We’re only human.

I believe the key to effective leadership in this situation is for the leader to avoid falling into defensiveness as well. These questions can help them do that.

Dora April 17, 2012 at 11:31 am

THIS was just what I needed to hear today, but not in the way you would think. Every aspect of our lives is a “business” or a “workplace”. We can be effective in our “paying” job but fail at home or in other ventures because we are more sensitive to those dynamics. The questions you presented today, phrased differently, can open up new conversation for sure with your spouse, your children, your friends and more. It will take practice to remember them when the old patterns start but, over time, if consistent, I think it will certainly improve communication. Now if you will excuse me, I think I need to call a tow truck…

Glen July 9, 2012 at 6:49 pm

Great questions to ask. Any time I am in a situation where I need to move the needle or “convince” someone to change or see a new way of doing things, I follow a simple method. I focus on reinforcing their autonomy – no one likes being told what to do – and focusing on the why which more or less encapsulates your approach. I seek to understand why they feel the way they do as well as why they might benefit from the change. Any tiny movement on their part in the conversation opens the door for you to continue to focus on autonomy – the choice to change or not to is always theirs – and really talking about the why and help them see why a change might be beneficial to them.

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