Engaging in purposeful and effective communication
The question. Of all forms of human communication, it is perhaps the most difficult to convey properly, the hardest to balance, and possibly the most misunderstood between the parties who are trying to send and receive information.
If you don’t ask a question, you are far less likely to obtain the answer that you seek. If you ask too many questions, people will eventually stop answering you.
If you ask a question at the wrong time, you run the risk of being perceived as nosy or intrusive. If you ask one of the wrong person, you might be labeled as a troublemaker.
If you ask your question with the wrong tone, you may come across as accusatory and if your question indicates that you know the answer, you will immediately arouse suspicion and unnecessarily put the person you are asking on the offensive.
These are just a few of the many examples of things that can go wrong or the unintended consequences you can create with a question that isn’t well balanced and delivered properly. But, questions are an essential part of human interaction and absolutely necessary for educational and information gathering purposes.
With that in mind, here are some guidelines and suggestions that will help you to be an effective asker of questions.
First, your questions must have a purpose. You have no doubt heard that there is no such thing as a dumb question. I disagree, but I understand the point. Every time I have heard someone say that they were trying to encourage people to ask questions. Good concept, but the wrong message. There are dumb questions when they are asked without a purpose.
You can sometimes get lucky and zero in on the purpose or meaning of a conversation on the spot, but you will be much more likely to have a purpose if you have spent some time preparing. A job interview, for example, can provide you with a great opportunity to distinguish yourself with a little advance preparation.
I have conducted many interviews over the years and I can instantly tell the difference between a job candidate who spent some time preparing for the interview and one who did not. Often, that difference is clearly on display when it comes time for the candidate to pose the questions they have. If I get a question regarding the strategy, vision, or purpose of the credit union, I know that I am talking to someone who has assigned some importance to the interview. If someone chooses instead to ask me how many sick days we offer, I know I am talking with someone who is either a. concentrating on the wrong things or b. asking a question purely for the sake of coming up with something, anything.
When you know that you will be in a meeting or an interview, during which you will be asked if you have any questions, take the time upfront to make sure that you have those questions prepared.
Another essential aspect of a good question is the timing of it. If your boss has told you that she is going to assign a project to you, let her explain it in full before you jump in with questions that may likely be answered during her instructions to you. In the same vein, it is equally unacceptable to receive those same instructions and then sit on that information for days before asking any necessary questions you might have.
Questions are a great way to both properly and improperly indicate your priority. If you are talking with your spouse the evening before a busy day and you take that time to fully understand the timeline and the main events of the coming day, you are prioritizing your questions accordingly. If, during that same conversation, you are asking about something that may or may not occur a month out, you are sending the signal that you are not comprehending the importance of the next day or, worse, perhaps signaling to your spouse that you are not all that supportive of the tasks immediately at hand.
Purpose, preparation, timing, and prioritization are all essential aspects of a question that will help get you to where you are going. For the most part, these are all things that you have a large degree of control over and that you can teach yourself through practice.
There is also an aspect of the question, however, that you will likely have to un-teach yourself. You have probably been taught not to question certain things or certain people. Perhaps you have been told not to ask why something is done that way because that is the way it has always been done. You almost certainly have been told, at one time or another, not to ask questions of your teacher, your parents, your boss, a doctor, or a police officer.
In many cases, I think these are the times that it is actually the most necessary to ask a question or even a string of them. The task here is to find an effective way to question an authority without questioning their authority.
Let’s use a doctor’s diagnosis as the example. If you arrive at the Emergency Room with a broken arm, and you know it is broken because part of the bone is protruding through your skin, you probably do not need to waste time seeking a second opinion when the doctor comes in to tell you that your arm is broken. Questions that you may have regarding what the next steps will be are absolutely appropriate at this point and are questions asked of an authority. Questions regarding where the doctor got his medical degree question his authority.
If, however, your doctor diagnoses you with a rare disease or informs you that he thinks you need a certain surgery, it is the ideal time for you to ask questions and possibly seek additional insight. It is the ideal time to learn as much as you possibly can about what you are experiencing, what the alternative remedies might be, how much time it will take for you to heal, and all that is involved with the entire process.
Those are questions for an authority or an expert to address and they cannot address them if you do not ask. You are not questioning his authority in that example, you are posing questions to an authority. If you choose not to ask questions in this scenario, you are doing a disservice to yourself and likely ensuring that you will not be as informed and educated as you need to be to make the best decision possible.
Your boss or your teacher may have a certain level of expertise, but that does not mean they should never be asked appropriate questions and it never means that they know everything there is to know.
When you ask questions with purpose at the appropriate time and they are reflective of the matter at hand, they will almost always be received in the way in which they are meant and effectively and sincerely addressed.
When that occurs, you are mastering the art of the question and you are engaging in purposeful and effective communication.
This article is part of Scott Arney's educational series, entitled The Serial Decision Maker.