Asking questions is natural. It’s something we do from an early age. If you’ve ever had a two-year-old, you’ll know what I mean*.
The problem is that in the workplace, the way you ask questions can either help or hinder you. Some of your colleagues prefer to be asked questions more directly and some less so.
If you ask a person who prefers a more polite approach a too direct question (in their view), you can offend them. Offend them too often, and you’ll find they resist what you’re trying to do.
If you ask a more direct person, a long-winded question (in their view), they’ll get frustrated your inability to get to the point. Confuse these people too often, and they’ll avoid answering your ‘waffly’ requests.
There is, therefore, more to asking questions than we think.
Going around the houses gets you nowhere
I learned how important is to ask good questions when I started my first junior management role. I worked for Ford UK in their Human Resources department at Halewood in Liverpool.
Part of my role was interviewing.
One of my tasks was to conduct back-to-work interviews. The purpose of these conversations was to check if the person was ready to come back to work. I was also trying to discover if there were any other reasons for their absence(s) — such as problems at home or tensions with their line manager.
I quickly learned that if I didn’t frame my question carefully, I’d either not get the information I needed or someone would accuse me of sticking my nose into things I shouldn’t. Or, as Scousers call it, ‘Geggin’ in!’
The painful memories of these interviews sparked my interest in the art of questions.
Asking good questions is good for business
How you ask a question depends on the relationship you have with someone. The better you know them, the better you can shape your approach.
Nonetheless, there’s always room for improvement. Because being skilled at asking questions brings huge benefits:
• You’ll improve relationships at work
• You’ll get the information you need
• You’ll get things done
• And you’ll gain the trust and respect of others
If you are interested in improving, I recommend you become a student of communication skills. There’s plenty of research into how to ask questions. However, to get you started, here are two useful techniques…
1. Stick to the facts
As someone asking a question, you must be clear on what information you need. But you also need to plan how you’re going to get it.
As discussed, some people can feel threatened when asked a too-direct question. Especially if they think you are criticising their character or decisions.
Thus, instead of asking: “Your team was due to send over the sales figures yesterday. Why haven’t they?:
You could try instead: “I see the monthly reporting deadline has passed, but we haven’t got sales data from your team…”
There’s usually a good reason something has or hasn’t happened. Before you jump to conclusions, exploring before making a judgement is sensible.
2. Avoid starting questions with “why?”
Asking ‘why?’ or ‘why not?’ can also make some people feel judged.
Therefore, instead of asking: “Why didn’t you change the photocopier toner? It’s your responsibility, isn’t it?”
You could try instead: “I notice we’ve not changed the toner cartridge this week. Do have any ideas?”
These approaches may make you want to scream!
You may feel that analysing your questioning style is a waste of effort. That people are over-sensitive and easily offended. But everyone is different.
If you feel this way, remember that the secret to being an effective communicator is not to ask questions about how you like to be asked. Instead, it’s to ask others how they like to be asked.
* Toddlers can ask ‘anywhere between 100–300 ‘why?’ questions daily!