“Curiosity killed the cat”, the old saying goes. But we prefer the classic rejoinder, “satisfaction brought it back”.
As every small child knows, asking questions is how you learn. And that is as true in the workplace as in any other environment. Asking the right questions at the right time can improve business strategy, surface potential problems before they become a major issue, and help you develop personally and professionally.
However, in our busy working lives, making time to ask great questions – and make use of the answers – can be tricky. There can be a vulnerability to it too – we might worry that asking questions will make us look ignorant or be seen as a challenge to the status quo.
The good news is that asking great questions is a skill that anyone can learn. When you approach it in the right way, you’ll find both you and the company benefit from the additional insights you gather.
In this blog post, we’ll look briefly at why asking questions is important in the workplace. Then, we’ll give you some tips for how to ask better questions, so you get the information you need to succeed.
Why Ask Questions at Work?
For many of us, asking and answering questions is part and parcel of our daily working lives.
Managers and senior leaders need to ask questions and gather information in order to make informed business decisions. New staff members need to ask questions to learn their jobs and understand the wider company. Everyone needs to ask questions of their colleagues to see connections between areas of the business and work successfully as a team.
Despite this, few of us are mindful enough of how we use questions to improve our work, influence company strategy, and support our professional development.
Here are some of the reasons it is worth paying more attention to how and when you ask questions at work.
1. Spurs Learning
One of the most obvious reasons to ask questions is that it helps you learn. If you are unclear on how or why something is done, the best way to find out is to ask more experienced colleagues. Curiosity is a powerful tool for sparking learning, as well as creativity and innovation.
2. Makes Connections
No single person in a company holds all the information needed to make it a success. We each have our own areas of knowledge and expertise. Asking questions helps to make connections between different people’s knowledge and between different departments, avoiding siloed working and helping you understand the bigger picture.
Of course, asking great questions also helps you connect personally with colleagues, strengthening your professional relationships.
3. Increases Business Insight
To make strong business decisions, we need to gather information from across the company. Although official channels may exist to provide reports and data, it can be amazing how much asking the right questions of the right people can increase your insight. And the right people are not always those at the top of the organization. Ask questions of people at all levels of the company hierarchy – you never know who will provide the details or ideas you need to move forward.
4. Uncovers Issues
Similarly, asking questions can mean you surface problems, roadblocks, and potential issues that might be holding the company back from making progress. While you might hope that employees would be proactive about coming forward when they notice a problem, it is common that these go unnoticed until someone directly asks.
5. Builds Trust
On a personal level, asking great questions helps you to build trust and grow your professional relationships. We are all flattered when someone asks for our opinion or expertise – and asking questions can also help our colleagues feel seen and understood.
6. Improves Professional Standing
When you bring all this together, it is clear that asking questions in the right way can do wonders for your professional standing. Asking great questions helps you be known as someone who is curious, insightful, and respectful of other people’s knowledge.
How to Ask Better Questions at Work
We’ve seen how asking questions can help us professionally and strengthens the companies we work for too. Still, asking great questions is a skill – one that many people don’t take the time to develop properly.
For some people, asking great questions comes easily. They have a natural sense of curiosity that leads them to explore more deeply, and a high level of emotional intelligence that leads them to ask in the right way.
For most of us though, asking questions in the right way takes a bit more thought and practice. Here are some of the considerations to bear in mind.
1. Watch Your Assumptions
If you are truly asking questions to learn, understand, and build rapport, the worst thing you can do is come with a lot of pre-made assumptions. If you’ve already made up your mind, you are likely to just ask questions that confirm your own viewpoint – and you might therefore miss some important insights.
That said, there are times when you might want to use questions to lead someone else towards a conclusion you’ve already reached. This is common for line managers who use a coaching approach with their direct reports. It can also be a useful way to influence those higher up the organization when you want to suggest a change of approach.
Outside of these specific situations though, leave your assumptions at the door and bring an open, curious mind so that you don’t accidentally let confirmation bias steer you in the wrong direction.
2. Choose Your Moment and Format
As any parent of small children knows, there’s nothing more annoying than being asked loads of questions when you’re busy. Fortunately, as adults, we can be much more circumspect in our timing. Finding the right moment to ask questions will help us get better answers.
For example, avoid asking non-urgent questions when you can see the other person is busy, stressed, or focused on something else. If you aren’t sure if it is the right moment, simply ask – if it isn’t a good time, you can always put some time in the calendar or approach them again later.
Modern modes of communication can help here, as it means asking questions doesn’t always need to be done face to face. Especially if it is something that requires some thought, you can ask your question via an asynchronous communication format, like email, to give the person time to think before they respond.
You can also mix communication formats. For example, you might ask your initial question via email and put in a meeting to discuss it a few days later.
Finally, think about whether questions are better asked one-to-one or in a group setting. Sometimes, questions will naturally come to mind when you are speaking as part of a group that are better saved until you can speak with the person alone. Questions that could possibly challenge someone’s authority or expertise often fall into this category.
In contrast, questions that will spark group discussion or that require input from multiple people are great ones to pose during team meetings and other group situations.
3. Know What Type of Question to Ask
You’ve likely heard that asking open questions helps you get better answers. While this is often true, there is also a time and place for closed, direct questions (those requiring yes/no or one-word answers).
For example, if you are having trouble getting someone to open up, a few direct questions might help to get the conversation started. The same is true if there’s a competitive or antagonistic edge to the conversation – direct questions help you get clear answers and leave less space for others to dodge answering or omit important details.
Generally, however, too many closed questions can quickly start to feel like an interrogation. They can also lead the conversation in a particular direction, instead of letting answers and insights arise naturally and spontaneously.
For the most part, you’ll therefore want to focus on open-ended questions that allow your colleagues to share their thoughts without too much direction. Save closed questions for the times when they are genuinely needed.
4. Ask Follow-Up Questions
Whatever the format of your original question, asking follow-up questions is a powerful way to get better answers and find out more. Plus, if you ever are at a loss for a new question, it’s easy to ask a follow-up using: Who, what, where, why, and when.
Follow-up questions have many benefits. For one, you can’t easily prepare follow-up questions in advance, so they require you to genuinely listen and engage with the responses you are getting. Your active listening will be obvious to the other person, who is therefore more likely to feel heard and respected.
Also, follow-up questions give you a chance to dive deeper into the person’s answers, clarify their meaning, and deepen your understanding. They mean you avoid leading the conversation in a specific direction, helping you leave your own assumptions aside. As a result, follow-up questions can take you to unexpected places, meaning you are likely to learn more than if you had simply moved onto a new topic.
One specific type of follow-up question is the “probing” question. These are questions you ask that dig deeper into a previous answer, instead of moving laterally across topics. Probing questions are extremely helpful in gathering additional data, including during those times when the other party may not want to share much detail. However, be sure to take caution as digging ‘too deep’ could make the other person uncomfortable.
Questions are a powerful tool to help you learn. By choosing the right moment and format, letting the conversation go in new directions, and leaving your own assumptions behind, you can ask great questions that help you succeed at work.