Categorized | Life

Don’t Quell Your Questions

Posted on 17 May 2009

A book encourages us to ask away.

Think about all the questions you ask every day, not to mention the questions that you’re asked. Over the course of a week, they probably number in the hundreds. Questions are so much a part of our conversations, we hardly give them a thought or consider their importance. Andrew Finlayson addresses this topic in his book Questions That Work: How to Ask Questions That Will Help You Succeed in Your Business.

Finlayson discovered precisely how important questions are in his present job as news director for KTVU Channel Two in San Francisco. “Few of us know how to ask questions well,” he says. “We’re taught to read and write, but no one teaches us how to ask questions. At home, parents often consider the constant barrage of questions as a tiring annoyance and discourage their children from asking questions (‘Stop asking so many questions!’). In school, teachers are more focused on the right answers rather than asking great questions.”

Yet, most successful people realize the importance of having a questioning attitude, Finlayson insists. “It’s especially important for professionals who are building technical careers,” he says. “They’re overwhelmed with so much information, they don’t need another challenge. What they need is a way to winnow down the information. The typical thinking is ‘I don’t need more information on this project. I have to get it done today.’ But, if they asked more questions, they would stand a better chance of getting it done faster with less angst.”

Most of us are uptight about asking questions because we don’t want to appear stupid or ill prepared.

Many people approach problems as purely mechanical issues and fail to see the human aspects, according to Finlayson. Take the technician who is called in to fix a computer that suddenly froze. The customer is bouncing off walls because he (or she) is facing a deadline when work must be completed. “Often, you can’t get to the technical problem until you resolve the emotional one,” Finlayson explains. That means calming down the panic-stricken customer so you can get accurate information in order to fix the problem. It might mean saying, “Can we work together to solve the problem?” One question leads to the next until the technician has a clear idea of how to proceed.

Most of us are uptight about asking questions because we don’t want to appear stupid or ill-prepared. Take meetings–the corporate plague–that can eat up entire days. “Whole meetings can go by in which not a single question is asked,” says Finlayson. “How can there not be information people didn’t get?” Yet, most of us are reluctant to reveal what we don’t know. We have to get beyond that and admit it’s impossible to digest everything being said. That’s a crucial step in asking questions. During job interviews, asking good questions is even more crucial. “A job interview is a clear demonstration of your ability,” stresses Finlayson. “It’s a mistake to just accept the information given to you. Interviewers should never be asking all the questions,” he says. For every question an interviewer asks, you should ask one. It demonstrates you’re not only a good listener, but you also want information.

Don’t assume job descriptions are correct. Finlayson advises coming to the interview with 20 questions you want answered. “It’s worth the effort,” he says. “The wrong job can divert you off of your career path,” he says.

Important Questions To Ask

  • Why is this position important? (Employees holding unimportant jobs are the first to be let go during hard times.)
  • What was the last major project handled by the person who previously held this job? (It’s important to know how this person succeeded or failed so you can follow in his or her footsteps.)
  • What challenges is the company facing? (It shows you’re going to try and help them address those challenges.)
  • How would you advise someone new to start off on the right foot in this organization? (Companies want quick studies.)
  • How will my performance be judged? (How the company benchmarks success tells you how fast you’ll move up the ladder.)

Inappropriate Questions

  • What does the company do? (It shows you’re unprepared for the interview and do not care about whether or not you get the job.)
  • What kind of reputation does the company have within its industry? (All it takes is research.)
  • What kind of compensation package can I expect? (The time to ask this question is when a job offer is made.)

Whatever the situation, there is a method to asking better questions. Finlayson breaks down the process into eight steps:

  • Assessment. All questioning involves self-assessment as well as an assessment of the questioning situation. What do I know? What do I want to do?
  • Awareness. What do you really want to know?
  • Ability. Who has the expertise and the ability to answer your questions?
  • Atmosphere. When and where should you ask your questions?
  • Attitude. How should your phrase and present your questions?
  • Answer. Did you get what you needed? “You’ll know if you walk away with the information you need and the other person will be happy to have helped you,” Finlayson adds.
  • Appreciation. “Listening with empathy when asking questions is one of the most profound social graces,” says Finlayson.
  • Action. What are you going to do with the answer? Asking questions is a pointless and frustrating experience if nothing is done with the information gathered.

Excluding inappropriate questions, Finlayson says you can ask practically anything if it is phrased diplomatically and tactfully. It’s a skill worth polishing.

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