The Gouge Cover Photo v2

Don’t ask questions that contain the answer you want to hear.

During a benign interaction between an aircraft carrier and a fishing vessel off the Georgia coast, I committed a leadership communication foul by asking a terrible question. I learned from this.

High Speed Turn Evolution
ATLANTIC OCEAN (Oct. 29, 2019) Capt. John J. Cummings, USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN 78) commanding officer looks out the window of the ship’s pilot house during a high speed turn evolution. Ford is at sea conducting sea trials following the inport portion of its 15 month post-shakedown availability. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Angel Thuy Jaskuloski)

On the bridge of the USS GERALD R. FORD (CVN 78), where the Commanding Officer and a team of ten “drive” the ship and perform the Captain’s NUMBER ONE priority – safe operation of a $13 Billion warship.

One afternoon, we were 120 miles off the Georgia coast heading north when we spotted (first on radar and then visually) a large fishing vessel heading west 15 miles away on our starboard (right) side, crossing from our right to left. Given our headings, we knew that our paths were going to cross and needed to know when or where that would occur.

The fishing vessel was on our right side, and as we stared at it through our binoculars, if it appeared to drift right that would be the best-case scenario because the vessel would pass behind us. I said to the OOD, or Officer Of the Deck (most senior person of the Bridge Team), “Looks like that vessel is drifting right, don’t you think?” His response: “Yes, sir.” We held our course/speed, the vessel continued to drift right, and eventually passed behind us, as expected. Massive at sea collision avoided. Win!

But was it a win? Nope. That vessel wasn’t a threat, but you know what was? My crappy “question.”

We didn’t hit the fishing vessel but that loaded question was a leadership foul. I put the OOD in a tough spot because I baked the answer I wanted to hear into my question.  Seeing right drift was good for me, so I subconsciously attempted to influence the OOD’s analysis with tossing out a not so subtle “drifting right” comment.

And the “don’t you think?” closer was a real doozie. I wanted his opinion but boxed him into a yes/no answer reply. Given the rank disparity between us (Ship Captain v. Not Ship Captain), I was looking for more YES than no.

Have you ever worked for someone who pretends to ask for your opinion but frames the “question” into a “YES/no response format?  Does this sound familiar?

  • “Don’t you think we should do (insert whatever thing the leader wants to do)?” or
  • “I think we should do (insert shitty decision here). Don’t you agree?”

Reading Leadership is Language by L. David Marquet fundamentally changed the way I addressed subordinates on the bridge. I was able to provide them the opportunity to voice their opinion while NOT under duress. I started saying, “What do you see?” and “What do you think?” more often. Open-ended questions became the standard on the bridge which gave the team the space to provide their honest assessment and opinion.

Don’t ask questions that require only one-word answers. Take a moment, look at your question structure. Are you boxing the responder in to a binary yes/no answer that is heavily weighted in your favor? For example, do not say “are you good?” or “are you OK?” There’s a better way to ask that.

Use open-ended . If you are genuinely seeking someone’s opinion, ask questions that contain phrases/words like how, what do you think, please tell me more, or can you elaborate. You can say “How are doing?”

**Disclaimer for long-lasting relationships.** If your significant other asks “I like this thing a lot, can we afford it?” Or “does this make me look good?” just acknowledge that these kinds a one-word-answer questions are acceptable. Just go with it and do not overthink. YES and YES!

I think this blog post is well-written and informative. Don’t you?