Hands Up: Do You Ask Good Questions?

There was an article flying around Facebook last week called, The Questions That Will Save Your Relationship. In all fairness, it was about the varied challenges of marriage and kids, but I think it can equally apply to work relationships. The article focused on one innocent question and the avoidance of it at all costs. The question was:

How was your day?

Seems innocuous enough, right? But the question, so well-meaning, such a good interluder, can open up a huge bag of worms. When you’re covered in apple sauce and the baby is screaming, it can say, “I don’t see you.” And when you’re on day-two without a shower and s, it can even say, “I don’t know you.”

True enough, for author Glennon Melton, it was the simple complexity of early-motherhood that made the question unanswerable. Her days were packed with every high and every low (joy, pain, sorrow, glee) sandwiched together like jam and peanut butter. Enough so that a question like, How was your day?, became an unbearable weight. It was just not a “good” question.

So what’s the tie-in with careers?

There were three great lessons in the article that spoke to me with respect to asking better questions. I think these are important lessons when it comes to interviews and career growth too. Improving the questions we ask (the way we see and deal with others), can make vast improvements in our overall work performance. Here are the insights:

1) Don’t just check boxes with your questions – First step to a good working relationship is caring. As Penelope Trunk once said on her blog: “People would rather work with someone they like than someone who is good at the job.” If you don’t care, don’t ask. But if you want to move forward, find a reason to care. This means getting to know the person you’re working with. How do they like to work? What makes them feel valued? What’s their greatest challenge? Melton says, “We need to ask questions that carry along with them this message: “I’m not just checking the box here. I really care what you have to say and how you feel. I really want to know you.”

2) Don’t ask throwaway questions – When you do speak up, make it count. Fast Company says that most of us are “too embarrassed to be direct, or we’re afraid of revealing our ignorance, so we throw softballs, hedge, and miss out on opportunities to grow.”  If you want a relationship, project or career to move forward, you need to get to the point and draw out the best insights you can. Don’t accept bad answers, “or worse, no answers.” If you want to know why you didn’t get the promotion or the client, you need to ask.

3) Questions are like gifts – Melton says: “it’s the thought behind [the gift] that the receiver really FEELS. We have to know the receiver to give the right gift and to ask the right question. Generic gifts and questions are all right, but personal gifts and questions feel better.” In an interview, tailoring your questions to the company indicates that you’ve researched the role and the team. It shows buy-in and interest. When you’re asking good, open-ended questions, you’re inviting someone to reveal their mind. Just don’t forget “to cut yourself off at the question mark.” Don’t make every question a multiple choice one (i.e. What’s your leadership style? Are you trusting? Do you micro-manage?). And don’t forget, when you’re gifted a “good” question, to give a good answer (i.e. on-point and concise).

Ask Yourself: How do you make your boss/coworkers/customers feel?

A great career or company is not so unlike a great love: in many ways it’s all about really being seen and known. And if you’re not being seen or known, it can make you quite lonely and discouraged. Whether at home or at work, we can’t forget how much our questions relay how we truly feel.  Life, after all, as Melton says, “is a conversation. Make it a good one.”