Whether you are happy in your current role or seeking alternative employment, asking questions is essential to improving as an employee, enhancing your career prospects and helping you form professional relationships. It is also vital for developing communication skills in the workplace.
Yet, unlike professionals who are taught to ask questions (for example, those in medical, media or legal professionals), many of us find it challenging to ask the right questions to the right person at the right time.
Here is our guide to the benefits of asking questions, what makes a good questioner, and how to hone and improve your question-asking skills.
Benefits of Asking Questions
Asking questions forms a large part of developing communication skills in the workplace and can help in more ways than just getting answers! Ultimately, it is a uniquely powerful tool for unlocking value in employees and mitigating business risk in organisations by uncovering unforeseen challenges. From an individual’s perspective, asking questions can also:
- Give you new opportunities to learn. Fostering a “growth” mindset can help you think positively about questioning and using the answers to improve yourself. It can also enhance your skill set and improve your emotional intelligence and natural curiosity.
- Create a positive work environment. Asking questions can help foster an honest workplace, build rapport and trust among team members, and encourage learning and the exchange of ideas.
- Illustrate your drive to improve. By asking questions, you can show colleagues, supervisors and potential employers that you are focused on improving yourself, your skills and your knowledge. It can also fuel innovation and performance improvement.
- Form new professional connections. Asking questions is also a valuable way of forming connections with mentors and other professionals in similar industries. This includes on LinkedIn, one of the world’s largest professional networks.
What Makes a Good Questioner
Regardless of the kind of question you’re asking, questions should lead to the information you need. To do that, you need to know what type of information you are looking for and who best to ask it of. A good questioner is:
- Curiosity leads to continual growth and learning, which drives positive personal, team and organisational outcomes.
- Choose your words with purpose, and ensure you are asking at an appropriate time and in the right environment.
- Often people don’t ask questions because they are afraid of what others might think of them. However, asking challenging questions can often lead to valuable clarity.
- Respectful questions are those that aren’t accusatory, judgmental or threatening. They don’t cause the questionee to recoil, feel less important or, at worst, leave the conversation!
- Speaking neutrally can help you gauge an honest answer without bias. Avoid inserting your own opinions into your questions so you can obtain answers that are on your questionee’s terms.
- Effective communication is an integral part of asking good questions. When asking, speak clearly so that the questionee understands what you are saying and there is no confusion. Keep questions straightforward, use simple language and keep your questions brief.
10 Tips for Asking Better Questions
Now for the nitty-gritty! We’ve covered some of the benefits of questions and some of the keys to being a good questioner, including enhancing your communication skills in the workplace. But how do you go about asking better questions?
Know what kind of answer you’re looking for.
Think about what specific information you want to know — is it an opinion, factual knowledge or are you simply looking for advice? Then think about who you need to ask to get the kind of answer you’re looking for — is it a colleague, a mentor, a supervisor or another professional source? Finally, determine what type of answer best fits the information you need in order to draft your question.
Understand the goal of your conversation.
According to an article published in the Harvard Business Review, the best approach to questioning depends on whether your discussion is cooperative (for example, accomplishing a task together or building a relationship), competitive (seeking to uncover sensitive information from each other), or a combination of both. For example, conversations between friends and colleagues are generally cooperative, and discussions about allocating resources tend to be competitive. When leaders are communicating with employers, conversations can often be a combination of the two — supportive, but also communicating expectations and providing feedback.
Do your research
It may sound simple, but knowing what you’re asking and why is vital.If your questioning is too vague or confusing, you may not get the answers you want. Research can also confirm that the answers to your questions aren’t easily accessible, making you feel validated in terms of asking in the first place!
Ask open-ended questions
These are questions that a person can’t answer with a simple “yes” or “no” — they require a longer, more detailed response. Open-ended questions can help people feel free to respond however they see fit. Questions beginning with “should”, “would”, “are”, “is”, and “do you think” will often lead to a yes or no answer. Those beginning with “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, “how”, or “why” will typically lead to the questionee giving more thought to their answers and providing more information.
Be a good listener
In terms of communication skills in the workplace, employing active listening skills is an essential part of the process. Silence is powerful! It can help you get the information you need and fully understand the answer. It can also show the questionee you value their responses and are interested in what they are saying. Active listening can be demonstrated by displaying good body language, making eye contact, and being patient by not interrupting the questionee when they are speaking.
Go where the conversation takes you
Everybody can get “off-topic” sometimes, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Conversations can flow in many different directions both before and after your question is answered. They can prompt follow-up questions, or questions you planned to ask may be answered without you even having to ask them.
Avoid “leading” questions
A leading question already assumes an answer. Questioners who ask these types of questions sometimes want to confirm they already know the answer. And while it can be harmless in some situations, it doesn’t leave room for individual responses.
Keep questions short
Long-winded questions often show a lack of self-awareness and can end up confusing questionees. Short questions won’t be overwhelming, will provide enough details to summarise what you want in a response, and will minimise the need for you to ask again!
Ask follow-up questions
After the questionee has answered your question and you’ve considered their response, ask a follow-up question. These can deepen your knowledge of the topic and show the questionee you value their answers. Valuable questions include asking, “Why do you think that?” and “What makes you say that?”
Say thank you
After the conversation, make sure you thank the questionee for their time and responses. It shows you are grateful for their help but also strengthens your communication skills in the workplace and your professional relationships, which can form valuable connections for future questions.