Why Asking "Any Questions?" Doesn't Generate Any Questions

Last Updated Mar 30, 2010 6:31 PM EDT

We've all been on that conference call or webmeeting and asked "any questions," only to be met with silence. We graciously thank everyone and hang up -- and then the emails fly, the phone ring off the hook and the team's jungle telegraph explodes with questions and comments. Why didn't anyone ask their question when they were given the opportunity?

Running a meeting is hard enough when you can sit at a table and see the glazed eyes and confused looks on their faces. It's even harder when you're communicating over distance and the only cues are in their voices. Here are four reasons why your people aren't asking questions, along with tips for using Q&A constructively:

1. The clock is ticking. Say the meeting is supposed to last an hour. Your busy team has probably scheduled something for right after the meeting, so if your meeting has already used up 55 of the allotted 60 minutes, they're already planning their escape -- particularly if it's late in the day wherever they are. Don't go over the scheduled meeting time if you can help it. Build reasonable discussion time into your planning and agenda. Also, tackle the harder questions early in the meeting, so that the most important issues are sure to be discussed.

2. Nobody wants to be the idiot. You can say all the right things like, "there are no stupid questions," but that doesn't mean they believe you. If you know there's a question about something, or you suspect people don't want to be the first, try asking the question of yourself by saying: "I know when I found out about this I wanted to know..." or "a lot of you are probably wondering X. Would that be a reasonable question?" By taking the onus off them to raise thorny issues, you're more likely to generate real discussion.

3. Nobody wants to be the troublemaker. A lot of times you know that the people most impacted by something have questions, but they're afraid to sound like trouble makers (or maybe they're too stunned to respond). Assuming you have honest, open communication, it's quite alright to ask individuals how this will impact them. You just don't want to put them on the spot. Instead of asking, "Raj, are you okay with that?" which requires a yes or no answer and implies that Raj is the only thing between the team and ending the meeting, try assuming that people probably have something to say. By rephrasing the question to "Raj, what will this mean to your team?" or "What else does your team need to know about this?" you make it safe to continue the discussion.

4. The mute button may be in play. Finally, the dynamics of working remotely means that folks sometimes can't respond immediately. We have all had the experience of launching into a question or comment, only to realize that we muted the phone and are talking into the ether. This is particularly common for folks who work at home and don't want to share the dog barking, kid crying and the Oprah show in the background. Give people time. Often pausing and letting the silence hang there will let them know they weren't heard. Silence will also encourage others to step up and fill the dead air.

Meetings and presentations without robust conversation and questions are simply data transfer. Plan to have real conversations, surface concerns, and generate true buy-in by making Q and A an integral part of your meeting, not just an afterthought.

What are your best tips for running virtual meetings? Let's hear from you.

photo courtesy of flickr user Lisa at home, CC2.0