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Go on, pop the question – it’s 29 February!

Happy Leap Day.

It’s the one day every four years when, according to ancient tradition, women can propose marriage. It’s got me thinking in general about questions and their value in and out of the workplace.

We’re living in an era with more channels than ever before to ‘broadcast’ our thoughts and ideas. I wonder if that’s influencing the way we communicate. Are we getting out of the habit of soliciting others’ opinions and properly listening to each other (you’ll remember I banged on about this in my TEDx talk recently – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7_UI9gNg_o).

So, on this special day, here are three important questions (which don’t require us to get down on one knee).


Very many of the people I work with can’t deal with challenge. They struggle to maintain control when their opinions/recommendations/knowledge is queried. Their response is either to become defensive or to cave in, neither of which is helpful. What we want to be is reasonable, measured, considered. And this isn’t just about work is it? How often do we become angry and combative when someone expresses a very different opinion to ours?  That’s why this question is so useful – it enables us to demonstrate respect for the other’s viewpoint; it buys us thinking time, and it helps clarify the nature of the challenge (which we may have misinterpreted). Allowing them to elaborate, and properly listening to them, might reveal some validity in their argument or perhaps expose its flaws. Whichever the case, the conversation will proceed more productively.


When I’m working with children in schools on ‘communication skills for life’, one of the topics is how to have better conversations with adults. It’s an age-appropriate introduction to small talk. The technique involves giving information and then, crucially, asking a question. This is especially important when communicating with older people who can often feel marginalised, worthless, invisible. The impact of a young person asking eg a grandparent “what sports did you play at school?”; “what’s your favourite movie?”, “what do you think…………?” is immense. Let’s all do more of this.


People, and women in particular, often struggle to talk about themselves (blow their own trumpet) in interviews and at networking events. They falter at the killer question – “what do you do?”, and often resort to reciting a CV. This is unlikely to be especially interesting, memorable or engaging so how can we be more effective? By asking ourselves this third question but by answering more creatively than with a list of job titles. Simon Sinek’s ‘golden circle’ and his ‘start with why’ are useful in this. They help us think about what we get from this job, what excites us, what we achieve each day/week/year. I’m reminded also of Starbucks’ interpretation of what they do. According to their mission and values statement, they don’t just sell coffee. They provide a ‘third place’ for people to ‘gather and ……deepen human connection’.  Ours may not be as lofty as this but let’s try to develop an answer which goes beyond what’s on our name badge.


Let’s also, on this rare day, celebrate that precious and magical communication technique – listening. Great piece here by Kate Murphy:


And if anyone is proposing today, I hope the answer is a big fat resounding I WILL…….






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