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Faith WoodDo your days feel like one unproductive meeting after another … and another?

Have you noticed how often people get bogged down in the same issues you talked about the last time you got together? You ask yourself: “Why are we going over the same ground again and again?”

Somewhere between the positive intentions that people start with and a consensus on the best path forward, it’s easy to be sucked into an unproductive swamp that drains energy and time.

It’s probably true that she who asks the questions controls the conversation. But it seems equally true that if people get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about their answers.

Asking the wrong questions can lead everyone into a quagmire of justification and finger pointing. We’ve all been there.

So how can you keep meetings positive and focused on the outcome?

Here are a few strategies I’ve collected over the years, through my mediation experiences, law enforcement duties and in my consulting role:

Click here to downloadWhen you hear yourself asking a why question like:

  • “Why did you do it this way?”
  • “Why didn’t they ask for help?”
  • “Why don’t you …?”


While those questions may explain how you got where you are, they also cause people to dig in and defend their positions rather than collaborating on a path forward.

Replace ‘why’ with ‘how’ or ‘what’ questions:

  • “How did you decide that?”
  • “How is that working for you?”
  • “What led you to that conclusion?”

You can soften any question by inserting “I’m curious,” “I’m wondering” or “Do you mind if I ask … ?”

What do you do when you’re the recipient of the dreaded ‘why’ questions?

You neutralize or redirect those questions with a question of your own. So ask:

  • “How does answering that move us forward?”
  • “Is this where we want to put our energy and attention?”

The more you challenge the validity of someone’s position, the more they’ll defend it. So use your questions as a ladder to something you can both agree on. Work on details only after you’ve identified a higher purpose or a shared value.

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First, acknowledge the other person’s position by pacing and creating clarity. Repeat back their words, beliefs and emotions (carefully, of course).

  • “I sense you feel very strongly about …”
  • “You believe that …”
  • “So it’s important for you that we …”

Once you’ve accomplished agreement here, you can shift the focus from the specifics of a situation to a bigger picture of what everyone hopes to achieve.

Explore more by asking questions that move everyone forward:

  • “How is that important for you?”
  •  “What’s important for you about that?”
  • “What will this do for you?”
  • “What’s your intention?”
  • “How does that move us towards our outcome to …?”

If you find yourself sinking, you can cut your losses with questions like these:

  • “What do we have to do to make things more the way we want them to be?”
  • “Is there anything we can do about … right now?”
  • “If so, what’s the first step we will take?”
  • “If not, how can we accept/make peace with what we can’t change?”
  • “If we must go through this anyway, what can we learn/get out of it?”
  • “What are we willing to stop doing/give up in order to get … more the way we want it?”

When people think a solution is unreachable, their efforts in meetings will reflect it! Create positive expectations by using “so far” and “yet.”

As in “we haven’t figured it out yet” or “so far we haven’t found the solution.”

With a commitment towards assuming good intent, conflicts and spinning our wheels in meetings can be reduced substantially.

Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications.  For interview requests, click here.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the authors’ alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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