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How to Ask (The Right) Questions At Work

Afraid to ask questions at work?

You’re not alone.

In a recent study conducted by Harvard Business Review of 3000 employees, a whopping 70% reported they face barriers to asking more questions at work. 

One of the barriers? 

Fear of rejection and ridicule at work.

You want to seem competent, in-control, and on top of tasks assigned to you all the time. You think asking questions means admitting incompetency and well, failure.

However, that’s not the case. 

The same study also shows that, “92% employers credited curious people with bringing new ideas into teams and organizations and viewed curiosity as a catalyst for job satisfaction, motivation, innovation, and high performance.”

Asking great questions can make you seem passionate about your work. It is a critical part of effective communication, which fosters a positive work environment.

There are also several other benefits of asking questions at work.

Benefits of Asking Questions At Work

Here are the most common benefits from asking good questions.

Improves Knowledge and Understanding

A new day at work brings with it new challenges. You might not have the solution for every challenge nor the skills or experience to successfully complete every task given to you. 

This is where asking the right questions proves to be advantageous. 

It allows you to add more skills to your expertise, learn new things on a day to day basis, improve your knowledge, and understand the tasks given to you to a greater degree. 

In short, fostering a growth mindset, which is vital for professional development.

Helps to Elicit Interest From Others

Asking good questions means that you’ve understood the task given to you and are keen to deliver it to the best of your ability. 

Seeking help from your team lead and management brings you to their notice. They see you as someone who’s passionate about their work and constantly striving to improve. And that’s the kind of employee they want to work with. 

Promotes Better Decision-Making

As Francesca Geno explains in her Harvard Business Review article, asking questions at work allows us to look for creative solutions to problems we’re facing or tasks we’re handling. 

Geno further elaborates that her own research showed, “that natural curiosity was associated with better job performance”.

This leads to making better, more informed decisions. 

Builds Relationships

Building relationships at work with fellow employees and the management is essential for a positive and thriving company culture, boosting productivity, and improving work satisfaction.

Studies show employee satisfaction increases nearly 50% when an employee develops a close relationship on the job.

One of the best ways to build a relationship on the job with your colleagues and superiors?

Asking questions and effectively communicating in the workplace.

Asking questions allows you to deeply understand other people’s perspectives and opens up a two-way communication channel. You not only get the answer to your problems or clarity on your tasks and responsibilities, but also a chance to show others that you value them and their opinions.

“Trust and commitment do not just happen; they are forged and maintained through effective communication.” 

From Communication, Commitment & Trust: Exploring the Triad, International Journal of Business and Management

What Makes a Good Question 

The better questions you ask, the better responses you’ll get. This in turn will help you effectively solve problems, perform tasks efficiently, and make better, more informed decisions.

But, what constitutes a good and bad question?

‘Do I have to attend this mandatory meeting?’

This is a bad question because, well, a mandatory meeting is mandatory for a reason - everyone needs to attend it. 

You gain no additional insight or knowledge by asking this question. 

In fact, you jeopardize the respect you’ve built in the workplace by asking questions that you already know answers to or can easily find answers to.

However, ‘What is the agenda of this meeting?’, or ‘What role do I play in this meeting?’ are better questions that can help you positively and effectively contribute to the meeting. 

Asking good questions at work that illicit participation and beneficial answers is a soft skill that employees need to develop. 

As Albert Einstein aptly said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

So what makes a good question?

A Good Question is Relevant

Your questions should be relevant to the task you’re asked to perform or the discussion that’s going on. 

For example, if you have a question pertaining to the project you’re working on, ask it. Don’t go on an entirely different tangent and start a discussion on another project’s deliverables. 

This way you not only waste time but also risk looking unprofessional. You can always discuss the other questions on your mind when the right time comes. 

Or if it’s a very important question, quickly announce that you’d like to discuss an entirely different matter and pose your question. 

Irrelevant questions are also ones that do not pertain to your work at all, such as personal questions or questions that do not concern you. So always avoid those.

A Good question is Clear

‘Why are we doing this?’ vs ‘What is the big picture here?’

Which question do you think offers more clarity?

The latter, right?

Always make sure your questions are easy to understand and describe your confusion clearly. Don’t ask ambiguous or vague questions that make answering questions a difficult task. 

The clearer your question, the easier (and faster, because let’s face it, who has time to waste?) you’ll get your answers. 

A few tips to ask clear questions,

  • Avoid industry jargon - a few important words is fine but using all the technical terms you know to ask a question (and show off your technical knowledge) may not be the best way to get the right answers. 

  • Keep your language as plain as possible.

  • Don’t hesitate to follow up with ‘Can you further elaborate X and Y?’ if you don’t get a specific answer to your question.

A Good Question is Purposeful

Always ask yourself - do you have a purpose behind asking a specific question?

  • Do you want to increase your knowledge?

  • Do you want to learn how to perform a particular task?

  • Or do you just want to contribute to the ongoing discussion?

That purpose can be anything, but the information you expect from it should help you accomplish the task you’ve set out to achieve. 

So be clear about what you want to achieve through these questions and what kind of answers you are looking for. 

A Good Question is Concise

A lot of people have the tendency to over explain when they ask questions or even respond to questions. 

The problem?

It wastes valuable time. The person answering the question can get a little annoyed waiting for you to get to the point. 

A good question is one that is concise. It doesn’t contain any extra words or unnecessary information.

For example, you’re in a sales forecast meeting and your team is setting sales targets for the next quarter. 

You’re confused which target you’re responsible for and your individual action plan. 

You might think of starting your question with a short summary of all the targets you’ve set previously, or list down all the sales targets your team has discussed in the meeting. 

After all, a little context is necessary, right?

No. Not always. 

Just get directly to the point and ask, ‘Which sales target am I responsible for?’

You can always ask follow-up questions if you want more clarity. 

7 Fool-proof Tips for Asking Better Questions at Work

Asking questions at work can be daunting. 

But it doesn’t have to be. 

Question asking is a skill that everybody needs to learn to excel in their professional and personal life, both. The following tips will help you hone your communication skills and ask great questions at work. 

This in turn will help you get valuable answers, keep your reputation intact, build relationships with management and fellow team members, and work more effectively. 

Tip 1 - Plan Your Questions

Before attending a meeting, or after you’re given a new task, sit for a moment and write down all the questions that pop in your mind.

Consider it a short brainstorming session.

Once you’ve written down all the questions, cross ones that you can easily get answers to without involving other people.

Now, take a look at the remaining questions and ask yourself,

  • Are they relevant to the current topic of discussion?

  • Are they clear? Or open to interpretations? 

  • Do they have a purpose? Will the answers add to your knowledge or skill set?

  • Are they crisp and concise?

  • Have you used simple, easy-to-understand language?

Take a moment to work on your questions prior to asking them. This practice will eventually help you ask good questions on the go. 

Tip 2 - Rephrase the Question if Necessary

You’ve asked a question that didn’t get you the answer you wanted. 

What do you do? Try to figure out the solution yourself? 

Well, maybe later.

First, try to rephrase the question and ask it again. 

While asking the question, you might have accidentally mentioned a wrong detail or the respondent could have misunderstood your question.

So rephrase and ask again. 

Tip 3 - Ask Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions are the type of questions that go beyond a simple yes or a no. 

They encourage two-way communication and long, valuable answers. 

Not only do you get answers to your questions, but can also, oftentimes, have small discussions on tangential issues. An excellent way of building relationships at work. 

Research suggests, ““closed” questions can introduce bias and manipulation.” 

Barbara Jordan writes that closed questions can, “cause the person to answer in short phrases and fall into a passive role waiting for you to ask for information.”

So, to make discussions collaborative and get comprehensive answers to your queries, ask open-ended questions. 

Tip 4 - Gain Permission Prior to Asking Questions

It’s normal to feel a little hesitant or shy when approaching senior people in the workplace or top-level managers. 

Just start off with, ‘I want to make sure I fully understand the task you’ve assigned me. Would it be okay if I asked you a few questions about it?’ to break the ice. 

This shows the person that you’re keen to do a good job and you’re respectful of their time. 

Tip 5 - Be Curious, Engaged, and a Good Listener

Before you ask a question, attentively listen to the instructions given and the discussions being held. Oftentimes you’ll find answers to a lot of your questions there. 

The same rule holds true when you ask a question - pay attention to the answer, don’t interrupt, make eye contact with the person explaining, and stay engaged. 

Don’t start pre-forming questions while the conversation is going on - try to understand the intent and perspective of the speaker. 

Focus on their answer, not on your next half-formed question. 

A good practice is to quickly jot down notes to ensure you don’t miss out on anything important. You can also write follow-up questions that come to mind to discuss with them once the explanation or discussion is over. 

Tip 6 - Use the Right Tone

The right tone can be the difference between getting the right answer to your question and not getting an answer at all. 

When asking questions, don’t just word them politely but also use a respectful tone. Understand that you’re asking them for their time and expertise.

However, respectful does not mean meek. Be respectful, but firm and in control. 

Tip 7 - Leave the Fear of Rejection Behind

The biggest reason for not asking questions?

Risk of failure and rejection.

The best way to overcome it?

Assume there are others who have the same question going on in their mind.

As JT McCormick explains in his article, “Every time you have a question in your head, and you're nervous to ask it for fear of looking dumb, assume that there are three to five other people in the room with the same question. Just ask the question.”

The fear of rejection is real, but if you don’t overcome it you’re never going to grow.

How to ask good questions at work using Loom

You have questions. But there’s nobody around who you can quickly talk to.

You need answers. Fast. So what do you do?

Step 1 - Open Loom.

Step 2 - Quickly make a short video explaining your problem.

Step 3 - Shoot the link over to the recipient.

Ping. The answer is in. 

You can get on with the task now.

Video is an excellent medium for explaining things. Research suggests that “when recipients were asked how they’d most like to learn about a product or service, 73% said they’d prefer to watch a short video.”

If you’re seeking help for technical issues, videos work a lot better than typing in a long, complicated text message. Simply record your screen, point to the specific areas where you’re experiencing confusion, and send it over for answers. 

It’s super-simple, it’s effective, and it’s quite addictive - you won’t go back to writing long texts once you get in the habit of creating short videos via Loom!


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Posted:

Sep 19, 2022

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