12/06/2010 04:41 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Your Speeding Ticket: A Lesson in Workplace Communication

"Do you have any idea how fast you were going?"

It's an all-too-familiar question. In that painful moment, seated sheepishly on the side of the road, we all come to the same unavoidable realization: There's just no right answer.

"No" doesn't seem all that great. This officer's task at the moment is to evaluate how responsible I am as a driver; the result of said evaluation will directly impact my bank account balance. I don't think I should be claiming that I drive without paying attention. "No, officer, I have no idea how fast I was going. It sure would be interesting to find out. Is that what this needle thing with the numbers does? I should've moved my newspaper." Save me a seat at the county lockup.

"Yes" isn't much better. "Sure, officer, I was violating the speed limit by exactly 18.7 percent. I read somewhere that obedience of the law is an 80/20 thing, so I figured I was in the clear. Frankly, I'm surprised to see you. Tight budget year?" I'm no lawyer, but I suspect a "yes" encourages the officer to penalize me as much as possible. Besides, "I knew it was illegal, but I did it anyway" sure doesn't sound like something I want to tell a judge.

What I'm left with -- what we're all left with, there on the side of the road -- is a conversation in which there is no place to go.

I've never had police training, so I'm not educated as to whether there's a good reason for the widespread use of this question. Boxing an unsuspecting driver into a conversational corner does create a sort of stress test, and perhaps every officer is trained to watch responses and draw useful conclusions. I really don't know. All I know for certain is that this question does not lead to useful information exchange.

Questioning is a verbally aggressive behavior. When I ask you a question, I limit your topics of conversation and require you to respond. It's a subtle, powerful way of taking control, the conversational equivalent of greeting you at the entrance to a public building, escorting you to a specific room and inviting you to have a seat. It's not my building, and in reality you are free to go anywhere, but meanwhile, here you are, right where I put you, whether or not it's the destination you had in mind.

That's why the police officer's question leads to excuses, muttering and flustered babble. The officer is your host in the conversation, but he or she is escorting you to a place you don't want to go. The likelihood of a meaningful exchange of knowledge in this case is nearly nil; you are preoccupied with finding your way out of the conversational trap, rather than actually communicating something useful.

In fact, the only way to get from this question to useful information exchange is to ignore the question completely and begin a whole new conversation. "I'm rushing my pregnant wife to the hospital, officer. Can you help?" But absent a seriously compelling reason to jump topics, like a pregnant wife, most of us are inclined to answer the questions asked of us. Social norms doom us to the conversational dead end.

Of course, on the side of the road, the outcome is predetermined -- you're probably getting the ticket no matter what you say -- so lack of information exchange is no big deal. In the workplace, however, this problem is far more serious. As information age workers, we constantly participate in the transfer of information, knowledge and data. Conversational dead ends aren't just awkward; they create problems with both productivity and job satisfaction.

Consider two examples of questions better left unasked, along with alternative approaches likely to yield better results:

The question: You ask your boss, "What do you want me to do about this new problem?"

The problem: Your boss may not have any idea but feels that as a manager, he or she should know.

The result: Your boss returns fire: "By now someone at your level should already recognize what needs to be done!"

The alternative: Begin instead with a tentative statement of your plan, and request feedback. "Here's what I think I should do," you might say, "but I wanted to get your thoughts before I begin."

Why it works: You and your boss are now metaphorically on the same side of the table, discussing your plans rather than getting locked in a contest of who should know what, which wastes time and makes both of you unhappy.


The question: You ask your employee, "How long will it take you to finish this project?"

The problem: The employee starts pondering the pros and cons of padding the schedule versus impressing you, the boss. This has nothing to do with how much time the work will actually take.

The result: You get an answer expressed in terms of "how busy I am" or "how much faster I can do this than other people" rather than a clear statement of the time required.

The alternative: Begin the interaction as a planning session instead of a quiz. "Let's sketch out a rough plan," you might suggest, "so that we can figure out how long this project might end up taking."

Why it works: Your employee is now focused on what it takes to complete a concrete sequence of work, rather than feeling put on the spot, trying vainly to discover the answer that is safest, and in the process frustrating and confusing you.

We're all busy at work. In the moment, it often seems quickest and easiest to just fire a question at someone. Unfortunately, the few minutes you save in the short term are often wasted many times over in the long run. Whoever you are talking to -- boss, employee, peer or customer -- remember that the way you start your interactions is powerful. If you can find a way to begin with information, rather than with a question, your chances of useful exchange increase considerably.

If you find all of that difficult to bear in mind, then just remember this: When you're talking with someone in the workplace, if either of you is having a conversational experience that's similar to getting a speeding ticket, you should probably start over with a different approach.