A relative: Are you going to work on computers like your daddy?
Jack (our two year old): No
Me: What are you going to do when you get older?
Jack: Drink beer, drink coffee and touch the ceiling.
What can I say? He’s an ambitious kid with high aspirations and great role models. But that’s not the point of this post…
As demonstrated by our 2 year old, the questions you ask and how you ask them play a big role in the information you learn. I’m going to provide some suggestions for asking questions in a way that will allow you to be more successful at work.
1) Only ask questions if you’re prepared to listen and respond. Too many people ask questions to elicit a specific, predetermined answer or so the questioner can feel like he’s checking off the box of “soliciting input.”
This is fine when it’s my wife asking me to pick between two carpet colors (or asking me about pretty much anything) and then deciding to do the opposite. However, it’s not ok at work or in most personal situations.
If you’ve made a decision and you’re not willing to change your mind, don’t ask for input just to get validation. Don’t ask a question because you think it makes you a good manager to solicit input.
2) Respond. It’s ok to ask an opinion and not follow it, but you must be willing to consider what you hear. And, you must respond to what you hear. Make sure you explain why you will or won’t be taking particular suggestions. Otherwise you’ll hurt morale.
3) How you ask the question determines the responses you receive. If you want to improve a presentation, ask, “What can we do to improve this presentation?” Most people are hesitant to give constructive suggestions (especially to their boss). By specifically asking for them, you’re giving yourself the best chance of receiving them. Someone who doesn’t really want feedback asks, “This is a great presentation, right?” They’ve setup the question to get a “yes.” If you just want feedback, leave the question as broad as possible: “What did you think of the presentation?”
4) Don’t include assumptions or try to show your intelligence when asking a question. It narrows the question and the answer. For example, “Why aren’t we trying that?” is better than “Why aren’t we trying that — because of budget?” Narrowing the question often leads to less informative answers. (Of course, ignore this if you only want a quick answer.)
5) Accept “I don’t know” as an answer. If people think they have to answer immediately, they’ll be less creative. They’ll be scrambling. Make it ok for people to say they’ll think about something and get back to you.
6) Know when not to ask a question. If you want someone who reports to you or a family member to do something, and they don’t really have a choice, phrase your request as a statement. “Please write a status report” is better than “Would you mind writing a status report?”
7) Question your assumptions. Go against conventional wisdom. Commerce Bank became a huge success, because they asked, “Why do banks operate the way they do?” Instead of following the model of every other bank, Commerce introduced weekend hours, late night hours and other policies that made them closer to Target or Starbucks than banks. It seems obvious now, but until Commerce, I can’t think of a big bank that offered this type of service.
8) Ask questions to push a project forward. Not to put someone on the defensive. If you ask a lot of narrow questions in a row, your colleagues may think of you as a lawyer or a police officer rather than a teammate. “How’s the project going?” works better than the series: “Is the project on budget?”, “Is everyone doing their share of work?”, “Will you be finished on time?”, and so on. Start broad and then ask the specific questions if you don’t get the information you need.
9) Don’t make your questions a drive by. We’re so used to saying, “How are you doing?” as “Hello,” that we ask it without even waiting for an answer. This happens with way too many other questions as well. The most important thing is to listen to the answer and, if appropriate, respond.
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