I see this every day. Someone will ask a question, and someone else will answer that question. Although she gets an answer, the asker walks away frustrated, because the question she asked wasn’t really the right one. Easy enough to fix, right? Not really, especially when the asker has no idea what went wrong. She might even ask again, more emphatically this time, only to receive the same result. What happened?

Think about it this way. If you’re speaking English to someone who speaks, say, Swahili, that person probably won’t understand what you just said. So you talk louder. I hate to tell you this, but it won’t help. More volume will never translate your English words into Swahili. To make yourself understood, you have to find common words, use gestures, draw pictures, provide context. You’ll probably also have to simplify your communication and be as direct as possible.You have to build a bridge to the other person’s understanding.

It works the same way even when both people supposedly share a common language. I submit to you that just because you and I both converse in English, my marketing-speak and your (for example) computer programming-speak may as well be different languages.

All right, this is getting longer and more complicated than I had intended. To really get the information you need, you have to boil it down to this:

  1. Don’t make assumptions that the other person knows what you’re really after.
  2. Figure out what you REALLY need to know. Ask THAT.
  3. Sometimes, this may actually involve a series of questions for clarification.
  4. If giving some background will help the other person understand what you’re after, do it–but don’t overdo it. (Watch for eyes glazing over. That’s bad.)

Here’s a real-life example in case you’re having trouble making sense of what I’m saying (i.e. if I’m not speaking your language):

I recently needed some electronic media burned onto DVDs. Ideally, I needed the DVDs to work both in computers and in home DVD/TV systems. I also needed the DVD to launch automatically, according to which device was being used. With these stated parameters, I asked if it could be done. The answer? Yes.

Simple, right? Wrong. What I didn’t know until I had the DVDs in hand was that the material would auto launch in  computer format only in certain circumstances, and those circumstances weren’t that prevalent. I got what I asked for, but I still ended up disappointed. I asked a question and got an answer. Unfortunately, I didn’t ask the right question.* I assumed the person I asked would intuitively grasp what I needed and why. I forgot that he didn’t speak my language, so I didn’t communicate my real need to him. Lesson learned–again.

*Right question(s): Can you make a DVD that will operate in home DVD players and in computers and will auto launch according to the device being used? Will this work every time? If not, how often and under what conditions will this NOT work? …or some such formulation.

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