Asking the right questions can often make the difference between success and failure. However, asking questions can sometimes feel awkward.
It can be uncomfortable to admit that you didn’t follow what someone said or that you don’t understand a concept. You might fear appearing incompetent, but that’s not true. According to Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, people who are inquisitive are generally judged to be more intelligent and engaged.
There are no stupid questions. From learning a new task to determining whether to invest money in something, it is your responsibility to arm yourself with information that will improve your performance. And, of course, the same holds true when you are on the receiving end of questions. Sure, part of the education process should include independent research, but tapping into someone’s expertise or clarifying directions is essential to rounding out your own overall understanding.
Asking questions not only keeps you engaged, it allows you to contribute to the conversation and learn something new. In our experience, there are some practical techniques that can inform and enhance the quality of the questions you ask, and lead to great work.
- Remember your buzz words – and then forget them.
Every industry has its vernacular. We are so accustomed to using these phrases with business colleagues that we tend to rattle them off when speaking with someone outside our industry. Be mindful and paraphrase terms.
Equate it to a doctor’s visit where you ask the physician to explain the procedure or ailment in layman’s terms. Your business prospects may not be familiar with the industry-specific terms we automatically toss out in conversation, and there is no reason they should.So the next time you suggest “shifting a paradigm,” “doing a cross-platform strategy” or“leveraging a best practice”it might be best to restate!
- Put yourself on the receiving end.
I had a “light bulb” moment during a recent introductory conversation with a vendor. He was explaining how his services would benefit our firm. But he only shared broad stroke examples of why companies hire him and potential end-results. No examples were provided that would enable me to relate his services to our needs.
I imagined myself in a prospective client’s chair, listening to an overview of our strategic capabilities and the importance of integrated programs. Unless that person has experience with marketing, it’s likely they are just hearing “blah, blah, blah.”
Presenting“if/then” scenarios that “paint a picture” of your ideas enables the listener to put your recommendations into context. Especially in a new business situation, or when you are working with a client to develop a new campaign. Don’t be concerned that your recommendations might be off and therefore make you appear unable to grasp the business. This approach shows your creativity.
- You don’t need to know everything.
Recently, the NPR station in New York City, WNYC, invited listeners to participate in Infomagical, week of experiments designed to help you find focus and discover the magic of clear thinking.
Information, learning, and curiosity are all great things – arguably the most important things for a functioning society. But as studies are starting to show, new channels of information are messing with our ability to process what we consume. There’s pressure (social and personal) to make sure we never miss an email, status update, or that Netflix show that everyone is talking about. Eventually, we complain of feeling “maxed out” or say we “don’t have the bandwidth.” Infomagical is a project about being better informed. We’re fighting information overload, otherwise known as “infomania” – not information itself.
Odd for a news organization to encourage less media consumption, but the idea was that we would perform better, remember more and be happier if we actually limited our information intake. Humans are not wired to multitask.
- Restate someone’s point in your own words to confirm you understand.
We all create meaning based on our own experiences, so it’s important to confirm that your understanding of what was said is actually what the speaker was trying to communicate.To do that you’ll need to paraphrase or reword what you heard including the content and the emotion.
Sometimes you’ll need to ask open-ended or comparative questions to confirm your understanding, such as “When you said X, what did you mean?” “Why do you think X, is it because of A?” “Can you give me an example of what you meant by Y?” “Tell me more about your feelings regarding X.”
- Recap verbally and in writing.
After long meetings or interviews it’s important to recap the main ideas to make sure everybody is on the same track and knows what the next steps are. Questions can also clarify expectations. Even if you think you understood your colleague or manager, I recommend taking clear notes during the meeting then following up with a written overview to all the participants.
Asking good questions is productive, positive, creative, and can get us what we want. However, asking amazingly effective questions is skill like any other skill, it takes practice. Once you know what kind of information you need and who to ask, asking questions in a manner that gets the best possible information in response is your goal.