Be careful about asking a question when you have a statement to make

Michael Brown, MD

So many of us work in complex political environments where we do not want to offend anyone or overstep our authority. When we disagree with someone, it can feel presumptuous to tell someone he or she is wrong. This is particularly true if the person is in a position of greater authority. Are we really sure they are wrong? Perhaps, does the other person know something we don’t?

One solution for these kinds of situations is to ask questions that lead the other person to our conclusions. Perhaps, we can ask if a concern we have has been considered. Or, instead of saying what we think should be done, we can present various options for discussion. This gentile approach might be safe and often effective, but I have come across situations where I think this approach turned out to not be optimal.

As a first example, someone recently told me a story of how in a recent meeting she expressed a concern as a question. The conversation then moved on and that the concern was forgotten. The person with the concern never explicitly stated that she disagreed with the intended course of action, and others in the room likely did not even fully appreciate her opinion. The group then ended up taking an action that resulted in what the concerned questioner had anticipated.

Perhaps, others in the meeting would have been more likely to have appreciated her insight if instead of a question, she had more explicitly stated her opinion. She could have said that although she supports whatever the group decides, she disagrees with what is being proposed. In that particular situation, I doubt anyone would have taken offense. Even if the group did not follow her recommendation, she might have felt better about herself for putting her concerns out there and perhaps less ignored.

The second example is one in which an executive wanted to push along a project within his organization. He did not have enough authority to make things happen on his own, so he presented his ideas to those higher up in his organization. He explained the logic for his proposal and then presented them with the various options that they could consider as it relates to his initiative. When I asked what he would suggest regarding some of those options, he responded by saying that it is their decision and that he had no opinion regarding those details.

He was presenting to busy people who already had too many decisions to make. Why not help them by telling them what he would do in their situation? After all, he likely had more time to think through issues related to his project. Those in authority have the right to do whatever they wish, but he could have eased their burden by sharing his thoughts and reasoning. The exercise of being ready to make recommendations would have also forced him to think through the details of everything that would really be required for his project to succeed.

You often do not have the authority to make decisions, but you always should have the right to voice your opinion. Sometimes, you will get your way, and sometimes, you will not. However, if expressed well, others will appreciate hearing your opinions, and you will feel better about yourself as well.

Michael Brown, MD, MS, MCHM, CHCIO is a certified executive coach (Center For Executive Coaching) and Chief Medical Officer at Acesis, Inc. He was an instructor at the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health for 8 years after graduating from their Masters in Healthcare Management program in 2007. For the 12 years prior to joining Acesis in 2014, Michael was the Chief Information Officer for Harvard University Health Services.