How to ask great questions at work

When you are talking to your colleagues at work, are you getting the right information? Are you getting people to tell you what they are really thinking? Are you getting the information you need to do your job well? If you hesitate or feel like saying ‘no’, it is “possible you may not be asking the right questions.”

In a blog post on HR daily by Brennan McEachran, he suggests ‘some professionals are reluctant to ask questions because they see it as a sign of weakness; as if admitting you don’t understand something is a reflection of your competency.” Does this sound like you?

I think asking questions is quite the reverse – being able to ask effective questions is actually pretty difficult and a skill that needs effort and attention to master! Asking considered, well phrased questions :

  • allows you to discover what people are thinking
  • enables you to test or validate assumptions
  • encourages other people to share their thoughts, opinions and ideas
  • helps you discover information you otherwise may not otherwise have access to
  • facilitates an exchange of information
  • helps facilitate a greater level of understanding for you – and the other person

This blog shares some detailed tips about phrasing – a key to asking effective questions. And it also shares some things to avoid.

Things to avoid

When asking questions, be careful to avoid:

  • asking double-barrel questions – ie two questions in one
  • asking closed questions when you are wanting an exploratory dialogue
  • asking leading questions that include a strong suggestion about what you want!

Check out the original post to see detailed examples of questions that make these simple mistakes.

Some tips to help structure questions for the best answers

Brennan suggests “Asking questions the right way (the way that gets you the best possible answers) means, for most instances, pausing for a moment to consider just what you’re asking — what information do you expect to get? — and then taking a step back to remove any assumptions from that possible question.”

Here are some tips to help structure better questions:

  • Abstract it when necessary. A good rule of thumb here is to take your question and move it up one rung of abstraction — going from the specific to the general.” For example: ”Should Heather be brought in on this project to speed it up?” Better: “How can Heather help us with this project?” Even better: “Who can we bring on to help with this project?” And, depending on the situation you can make it even more abstract: For example: “What can Heather do to help our team?” Or: “How can we speed things up?” Don’t worry about the question sounding too broad or open.”
  • Keep it simple: Use as few words as possible. “A good rule of thumb is that if you’ve starting asking your question, and then pause, stop right there. This is because a good number of bad questions take the form of question, then follow with your opinion! Wait…and see what happens!
  • Avoid interjecting. Some people are succinct and answer quickly. Others, take a little time to warm up a bit before providing a substantive answer. Even if you are in a hurry, realise people take different routes with their answers. Take another breath before speaking – you might be interrupting the response before it’s even really gotten going!
  • Ask simple follow-ups. If you think there is more to the story or you need a little more detail, ask a simple follow-up question. For example “what do you mean by that”, “tell me more” or “when you say…” And ask for an example if you think this will help go that bit deeper.

Click here to access the original HR daily blog by Brennan McEachran. It provides some more detail on these tips.


Want more information on Questions?

We have written about asking effective questions before.

Click here to see our DiA-Tips and Hints for asking effective questions and our blog 7 Killer questions to change a conversation.