Need to Have a Challenging Conversation at Work? Be Curious with a Question Funnel.

Challenging conversations happen at work, but how can we have them in a productive way?

We’ve all been there. A crisis or long-standing issue disrupts workflow and progress comes to a complete stop. A meeting is called, frustrations are vented, and emotions run wild. Damage control is the next step, but important working relationships have been broken.

But what if a challenging conversation could build relationships instead of break them?

Lean into curiosity with the Question Funnel.

Sometimes we need to have a tough conversation at work, but these conversations can be stressful and relationship damaging when not handled properly. It’s easy to slip into the blame game when something has upset us or a mistake has been made. When we start prescribing blame, we’re making assumptions, and assumptions are rarely productive.

Instead of leaping to conclusions, get curious. When we are curious about something, we ask questions to try to understand. By finding understanding, we show respect to the person we’re having the tough conversation with and make real progress towards finding a solution.

The Questions Funnel is a fantastic technique to use in tough conversations.

What is a Question Funnel?

When we ask three questions in a row, we are in a question funnel.

A question funnel is a series of five to seven questions, increasing in specificity. It uses both open-ended and close-ended questions to achieve clarity and understanding. Each question becomes more specific to a maximum of 7 questions.

The goal of a questions funnel is clarity and to create productive results.

Why does a Question Funnel work for challenging conversations?

Using open-ended questions helps us gain clarity while showing respect for the other person’s perspective. A question funnel is an opportunity to connect with the data needed to identify the problem. More importantly, it connects the people who can solve the problem.

Challenging conversations often put people on the defensive because they feel they are under attack. The Sympathetic Nervous System, think fight or flight, can be activated when we are simply trying to understand a situation.

A question funnel uses broad, open-ended questions to start. This requires people to go through several layers of data in their minds to give full answers. A calming effect ensues as people connect more mindfully and thoughtfully.

Ask Open-Ended Questions.

Open-ended questions start with:

  • What
  • Who
  • When
  • Where
  • Why
  • How

Not all questions that start with these words are open-ended. Also, questions that start with “why” can sometimes be viewed as confrontational and should be worded carefully. Using close-ended questions can become challenging, especially when someone is using them to avoid or hide something.  

Avoid structuring questions this way:

“Who did this?”

The result will likely be a yes/no or one word (close-ended) answer.

Try instead:

“Can you walk me through how this decision was made?”

When you’re asking open-ended questions, listening for the actual answer is very important.  The next question should be informed by their answer and be designed to gain more specific knowledge.

You can do as many question funnels as you want, provided there is a productive reason to continue exploring a topic. At the end of that funnel, we paraphrase or summarize what we have heard so far.

Using a question funnel.

Most question funnels are between three to five questions. When you have enough understanding from the question funnel, you can summarize or paraphrase what you’ve heard. Summarize if you have learned something from what you just heard, or paraphrase if you need more information.

Paraphrasing or summarizing demonstrates your understanding and ensures you have understood correctly. You can start a new question funnel if it’s agreed that you’ve understood them correctly.

A question funnel that goes five questions without a paraphrase or a summary can become uncomfortable and feel like an interrogation. Paraphrasing and summarizing help keep things conversational while ensuring that everyone is on the same page.

Paraphrase and Summary.

A paraphrase is taking all the “bullet points” or takeaways from what we’ve just heard and giving it back to a person to keep the conversation going. Paraphrasing should be two to three sentences.  When paraphrasing, try to mix your own language with the language of the speaker. If you’ve listened to someone for two to three minutes, you should be able to paraphrase in about 20 seconds.

Summaries get to the meaning of the conversation. When doing a summary, use your own language with a maximum of three sentences to sum up the overall takeaway from the question funnel. Summary is the highest form of listening and shows your audience that you care and are paying attention. Even if a summary is not aligned with the speaker’s meaning, they will let you know and clarify their thoughts.

When you summarize or paraphrase, you have ended that question funnel. This does not mean you have to switch to a new topic. In fact, you have the option to go deeper.

Finding connection and understanding.

If people get defensive, take note and adjust how you are asking the questions and keep the tone conversational. This way, we have a range of options.

When we remain curious, our intention to gain information aligns with building relationships. By leaning into our curiosity, we can deepen our relations while still tackling the challenging conversations we need to have.

If you’re interested in learning more about dealing with challenging conversations and the questions funnel, please get in touch, and we’ll be happy to discuss some options for you and your team.

Challenging conversations happen. Great leaders turn challenges into opportunities for greatness.