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Have you had one of these conversations lately? You tell the other person, whether it is a co-worker, vendor, or customer, That is not what I said. Then the other person says, Yes it is! These circular conversations are so frustrating and can lead to serious misunderstandings.

Being accused of saying something that you know you did not say is maddening and your first reaction might be to vigorously defend you honor. Unfortunately, faced with denials, the other person will only dig in his heels and vigorously defend the accuracy of his interpretation.

When faced with this kind of circular conversation, what should you do? Take a deep breath because breathing allows your mind to slow down in order to think, rather than react. After a moment, ask some very specific questions. We often think that because we know how to ask questions we have good questioning skills. In reality, asking good questions -meaning the kinds of questions that elicit relevant information- is really hard. Good questions are the kinds of questions that engender a positive feeling, and as a result of the positive feeling, the other person will give you an answer.

Asking the right questions will help in three important ways. First, good questions will stop the circular nature of the conversation. Second, questioning will stop the blame game. Third, specific questions will uncover the real misunderstanding at the root of the conversation.

Here are three tips to asking great questions.

  • Ask open ended questions. The best questions are open ended questions that follow up on a statement the other party makes. For example, if you were to ask, What do you think I meant by that, to other person, he will tell you exactly what he thinks he heard. Now you have a clear understanding of what he heard.
  • Ask non-judgmental questions. Judgmental questions are little tricksters. They sound so innocent, but people are often offended by them. A judgmental question might be something like, How could you think that I would agree to that? The implicit message is that you must be a moron to think that. On the other hand, non-judgmental questions are less pointed. For example you might ask instead, What words do you remember me saying that meant that to you? You might be amazed at the difference in meaning a word can have to another person.
  • Ask for clarification. Clarifying questions allow people to tell you in their own words what they think something means to them. An example of a clarifying question might be, What does that look like to you?

Circular, yes you did, no I didn’t conversations happen all of a sudden. So, here are three questions to memorize for those times when you are caught off guard.

  • What did you think I meant by that?
  • What does that look like to you?
  • Tell me more about what that means to you?

What if the other guy just repeats that same answer? Many poor communicators will not know how to answer you, and may offer a noncommittal response. Without the information you need to understand what is important to the other party, you will be unable to address and satisfy their needs. You may chose to say upfront that you are hearing a noncommittal response. This can be difficult to do well, so here is an example of a statement that addresses the noncommittal nature of the person’s response. Without a clear understanding of what that means to you, I am not able to help you meet your goals.

Asking open-ended, non-judgmental and clarifying questions will immediately re-direct a circular conversation to a one that is about the real issue. After all, it really does not matter who is right. What matters is that you and the other person do not see eye to eye and you need to work together to resolve the difference.

Misunderstandings are unavoidable. You can, however, minimize the severity of misunderstandings by acting quickly to uncover the issue that threatens to divide you and the other person. Stop, breath and remember to ask one of the three questions above. You will proactively stop the nonsense, while also discovering the real issue.