Seek to understand. It sounds a bit like advice you’d get from a karate kid movie or Yoda, right? (Wait. Did I just date myself?)

But it’s sound advice for anyone trying to communicate—especially when writing at work.

It takes longer to make the effort to understand as opposed to knee-jerk reactions, but it saves time in the end. Not only that, seeking to understand can improve workplace communications.

In his article titled How do you improve workplace communication? Ask questions, writer Michael Bungay Stanier explains that we shy away from asking questions at work because it means giving up some power:

“We’re used to a work culture that rewards advice through praise and promotion. Giving advice presents the illusion that you’re adding value to a conversation and holding control of the interaction. Asking questions instead means relinquishing some of that power and, in doing so, empowering the other person in the conversation.”

But it is through questions that we get the information we need to improve both our communications and our workplace performance.

Why “why” can be a trigger word

Not all questions are created equal, however. You must be mindful of the context in which you’re asking your question and take care to phrase it in a constructive way.

In our marriage, my husband and I have worked hard to avoid asking questions that start with “why” because those questions often sound confrontational and put the other person on the defensive, with questions like:

“Why are the cows still out?”

“Why is this laundry on the bed?”

“Why isn’t Chase in his stall?”

“Why is your uncle visiting in August?”

Granted, for some people those wouldn’t be confrontational questions, but we went through a rough patch with each of us hearing criticism in the other’s questions when criticism was not intended.

We chose to remove “why” questions from our communications and try to use “help me to understand” instead. When we start with “Help me to understand (why Chase isn’t in his stall),” we are giving the benefit of the doubt that the other person has a good reason.

This happens in work communications too. My husband told me about running an engine test at work then being told to do it again the next day. When he recapped how the conversation happened later, he recognized a significant difference between:

“Why do we need to do it again?”


“Help me to understand the reason for doing it again.”

Do you?

Alternatives to “why” questions

Seeking to understand does mean asking questions, however, even if I’m cautioning you to avoid questions that start with “why.” When you don’t understand what a coworker, manager, employee or customer is saying or proposing, questions such as these can help:

“Can you tell me more about your idea/problem/question?”

“How do you picture _______ working? Who would be involved? How long would it take?”

Questions like those can lead to a better understanding and therefore communication. Compare:

“Why are you proposing that agenda change?”


“Can you tell me more about the reason for the agenda change?”

Do you see the difference?

The sin of assumption vs. seeking to understand

Although I’m retired from the day-to-day corporate communications I’m describing, I still run into avoidable poor communications in my volunteer work. As an example, I recently emailed our board with an idea and that email backfired. For my part, I didn’t explain my idea. I dashed off the email without thinking it through. I know better. I teach slowing down when emailing in my business email ebook. So I own that.

But one reply to my poorly written email stood out as an example of not seeking to understand because the person used 100 words to tell me why my idea would never work. They didn’t ask for details. They didn’t seek to understand. They made assumptions about my idea and responded based on their assumptions. (And the sin of assumption is a topic I covered in depth years ago for

This kind of miscommunication happens every day in the business world for two big reasons:

  • People dash off writing without revising, which I wrote about here.
  • People make assumptions rather than seeking to understand.

The result? Money and time wasted. As Josh Bernoff points out: “America is spending 6% of total wages on time wasted attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material.”

(Read more about the high costs of poor writing here.)

Go forth and question

While doing research for this blog post, I came across numerous articles on the importance of asking questions to improve workplace communications. All were focused on asking questions in verbal communication. But with so much of our communication happening through writing at work, not face-to-face conversations, I’ll argue this advice is as applicable to writing as it is to speaking.

So let’s slow down and take a few minutes to digest what the other person is saying, asking questions that help us to understand before reacting. Because better communications mean a better workplace for all, right?

Photo by Zuzana Ruttkayova:

Sharon Ernst is a freelance editor and writer at, a teacher and coach at And a farmer and planet saver at