Answering the Loaded Question in Project Management

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In project management, loaded questions can cause massive problems on project teams.  As the project manager, it's your job to keep things under control.

Loaded questions usually carry some form of presumed fault. Here's an example: "Why didn't so-and-so provide us a project update on time?"

When someone -- project team member, stakeholder or client -- asks you such a question, how do you react? Do you answer it directly or do you try to defend yourself or your team, escalating the situation further?

In my opinion, the fastest and most effective way to respond to a loaded question is to address its underlying concern. When you address the issue rather than what is being asked on the surface, you create a safe environment where a person is understood.

Recently, I was in a situation where my first reaction was to defend myself and completely bash the opposing view. I stepped back and looked for their concern about the incident that occurred rather than jumping into defense mode.

As a result, I was able to see more clearly why in this situation, the project process was defined the way it was, without pushing my own agenda. Instead of seeing holes in the process, I started seeing what actions I needed to take. When I acknowledged this to the person that raised the question, the original concern disappeared for both of us.

The next time someone asks you a loaded question, answer the concern and not the question. The original issue may simply disappear.

Think about a recent encounter with a project team member or stakeholder where you may have gotten a bit defensive. What would be different in that situation if you listened for the concern behind what they were saying?

Read more posts from Dmitri.
Posted by Dmitri Ivanenko PMP ITIL on: July 28, 2011 03:36 PM | Permalink

Comments (9)

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Zulkifli Mohd Zain
I agree with Dmitri's response.

Normally to view the loaded question is to know from which perspective the question was posed. A client rep may ask as a basis of a mere updating process for documentation - make them feel good kind of question.

Others may ask as a concern, resulting from the fact that an objective was not met or had a threat of not meeting. Most importantly, loaded questions as a result of the failure of meeting an objective.

Therefore, whilst trying to understand the concerns, a project manager will first have to exercise mitigation to reduce the impact of failure meeting the objective. Validating the concern either in answering the loaded question or complying to the process posed by the loaded question would solve the problem.

Most processes do not address psychological concerns. This would be a soft skill that a project manager needs to acquire. Otherwise, complying to the process developed specifically to project in the project quality plan would kill the issue.

Eventually, it is not the issue of defending one's action but a process of moving forward letting whatever contracted obligation not met addressed by the provision of the contracts by the contracted parties.

Bob P.
I've heard this referred to as "the question behind the question". This is a great point you are making, and is more difficult to implement than some may think.

Managing these questions requires a high emotional intelligence, which often is in opposition to the nature of a high-energy project manager.

Himanshu Bansal
This is a good point. We all handle such situations in the similar way but never realized that this is how we do. We try to get the gist of the problem by analyzing the question and then the concern. Thereafter, we need to address both the question and the concern.

Project Manager
Great advice. It is better for everyone involved when communication addresses concerns, and not blame.

I was recently asked a loaded question and I have to admit I reacted a bit defensively. When the conversation ended nothing substantial got resolved and I left feeling defeated. In the future I will try your advice and address the concern behind the question. Thanks again.

Dmitri Ivanenko
True, I heard it as "question behind the question" as well. Having a concern in ones mind but hearing something different we tend to respond to what we hear. I find it easier with time to actually listen to the concern itself rather than what is being said on the surface, as I get to skip the question they are asking and ask questions about their question and how it relates to what they are up to. If we address both, the question and concern this way, we get to the bottom of what's on someone's mind, most of the time.

Zulkifli, I so agree that it's such an important soft skill and how important it is for project managers to cultivate and practice it, as they are able to get through issues faster, more efficiently, with less cost in time and efforts and higher satisfaction from the project team. When people are able to resolve their concerns through a quick direct and focused conversation, there's little need for mediation or escalation.

People ask me at times how would this look like in real life and the answer lies in how you are being with that person when the question is asked. Are you being cooperative, interested, curiously engaged with them? Or are you being dismissive, strong-headed and opinionated?

How I am being with my team and whether I'm actually interested in what they are saying and where they are coming from, and not just what they are saying, will lead me to the path of discovering what's really underneath the asked questions and exhibited behaviours.

This works very well for me. I find it easier for people to follow the processes or contribute to improving the processes when they buy into it. And that comes from how I'm being with them in my communication with them. I can talk about the "right" way of doing things so that the project is on track until I'm blue in my face, as long as I'm not listening to them, my team, it's pointless, no matter how "right" I am, or how great the methodology I'm working on implementing is.

Over the next few days take it on to be more present and listen to the concern from a way of being interested and engaged and see what a difference it makes. I'm sure you'll have surprising results that you'd be pleased with.

Ron Rosenhead
This is an interesting article. Thank you Dmitri. It reminds me of a conference speaker who, when asked a question, replied:

"I think the question is more interesting than the answer."

Of course, as a conference speaker it's more easy to do...but what you point out is that project managers need to put their head above the parapet...

Steve Hart
It is always good to think about whether or not there is more to the question than what was asked. However, it is not necessarily helpful to assume that there is a question behind the question (often times people are innocently asking the question).

When I suspect that I am answering a loaded question, I find it best to provide an honest and helpful answer to the original question, and then follow-up with a clarifying question -- Did this fully answer your question? Was there anything else I could help you with?

Christopher Stimpson
Excellent thoughts! I would even suggest that the culture of the people you work with have an influence on how well this works. In some cultures it just won't work every time. In other cultures you will pave the way for a transformation in the organizational outlook.

Maria Pegkou, MSc, PMP
Thank you, Dmitri for the very interesting post!

I believe that many loaded questions are a result of the emotional charge of the person who poses them. Thus, acknowledging the emotion of the person may bring the tone down and swift the focus on the real issue that needs resolution.

Furthermore, in addition to acknowledging the emotion it is important to reinstate what we believe the concern is, so to ensure that we fully understand and we will address the issue that concerned the person who posed the question and not simply the issue we heard.

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