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Strategies for Difficult Conversations – Part VI

While sitting with a small group of committed, engaged and effective salespeople enjoying a lively discussion about how to inspire conversations, someone shared: “But it’s so hard when no matter what question you ask, they give you a one-word answer.” Someone else quickly added, “Yeah, I ask lots of open-ended questions but more and more all I get back is a ‘yes’ or ‘sometimes’ or ‘sure’. I find it really difficult and incredibly awkward.” This is a relatively new phone communication challenge. If you haven’t encountered it yet, you will, and it’s valuable to know why it’s happening and what to do to inspire conversation.

What’s causing an increase in one-word answers to open-ended questions? What words or phrases might result in longer answers?

Texting is at the foundation of this communication challenge. For individuals who spend the majority of their time “talking” with others by text, long answers are not their preference. The pattern of texting is short-quick-send, short-quick-read, short-quick-send, etc.

Certainly some people send longer responses but, for the most part, texting is fast and involves few words. Not only that, there may never be a flow. I might text you. You might reply 30 minutes later. I might answer in an hour, and so on. Words are exchanged but the conversation is jagged. It doesn’t require the same level of engagement as a vocal conversation.

So when you find yourself asking great open-ended questions of someone and only receiving one- or two-word answers, know that you’re likely dealing with someone whose main method of communication is texting. To engage them in conversation you need to do two things:

  1. Use what I call the universal open-ended question, which is “Tell me more”.
  2. Wait patiently. There will be silence and you’ll be tempted to fill it … but don’t. Remember, they are not accustomed to having vocal conversations. Give them time to think and to find the right words to provide an answer. They will be uncomfortable and your patience will be accepted as encouraging and supportive.

This will be occurring more often in all our lives. While it’s tempting to say that it’s connected to one’s age, I haven’t found that to be true. There are individuals from every generation who have embraced texting over other types of communication. Know that their one-word answers are a sign for you to ask a different question, to be patient and to get comfortable with more silence on the phone.

What about you? When you ask questions on the phone, how do you deal with one-word answers? Share your strategy in the comment section below.





2 thoughts on “Strategies for Difficult Conversations – Part VI”

    • Thanks, Steve. Change is constant and it is difficult to notice everything. Of course, it helps to continually have conversations with others about their experiences on the phone – and otherwise. I think even face-to-face conversations are experiencing major shifts.

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