Knowing how to ask a question at work may seem like something we can all naturally do. After all, we ask questions every day, so there’s no shortage of practice. But do we really know how to ask a question well? Do we know how to increase the chances of getting a clear answer? Or how to avoid wasting time for ourselves and others?
There is a difference between asking for something and asking for it well. To help you ask the best questions possible, here are 16 tips for how to ask a question at work.
- Have a clear goal/purpose for your question.
- Make sure the question is relevant.
- Consider if this is the right time to ask.
- Check you’re asking the right person.
- Provide context for the question.
- Ask for one thing per question.
- Be specific — the more specific the better (even with open ended questions).
- Get to the point.
- Separate the question from why you are asking it.
- Don’t include your answer when asking a question.
- Say when you need an answer.
- Ask your question before the topic changes.
- Split a complex question into a series of simple questions.
- Don’t ask questions that aren’t questions.
- Don’t ask questions you could easily look up the answers to.
- Be aware of your tone.
1. Have a clear goal/purpose for your question
If you don’t have a clear goal for the question you’re asking, how will you know if you get a useful answer? Whenever you ask a question you should know exactly why you are asking it and what type of answer you hope to get. When you know the specific goal you can word the question to match the goal. This increases the chances of getting a good answer.
2. Make sure the question is relevant
No matter how important, or how good your questions is, there is always a right and a wrong time to ask it. Asking about the office holiday party may be relevant in a team meeting, but it’s not relevant in a client sales presentation. When you want to ask a question consider the situation, the people, the topic and the timing. If the question isn’t relevant to all of those things, you should wait for a more appropriate time.
3. Consider if this is the right time to ask
A relevant question can be ruined by asking it at the wrong time. When you are preparing to ask a question, ask yourself the following questions: would it be better to wait until later in the conversation? Would it help to wait until fewer people are in the room with you? Asking a question at the wrong time can be embarrassing for you, and for other people. It can also mean you don’t get an answer.
4. Check you’re asking the right person
We can’t always be sure the person we’re talking to has the answers we need. If you’re not 100% sure you are talking to the right person, ask them. Before you ask the specific, detailed question, ask if they are the right person to help. A simple query like ‘Are you the right person to ask about topic A?’ is all you need. If they are, great, you can ask your question. If they aren’t, you’ll avoid wasting time asking a question they can’t answer.
5. Provide context for the question
A question without context can produce and answer to a different topic. If I ask you what time are we meeting but I don’t give you any context, you might tell me what time our work meeting starts. You might also tell me when the team lunch starts, or when we are meeting to get the train to the client’s office. My question didn’t make it clear which answer I needed. If you don’t give clear context for a question you can never be 100% sure the answer is what you need.
6. Ask for one thing per question
Questions with multiple parts may make sense to the person doing the asking. But they are difficult to follow, and difficult to answer. If someone asks a question with multiple parts, I have to remember all the parts, remember the order, and then keep that memory while I go through and answer each part. That’s not easy. The chances of missing part of an answer, or mixing up the question are high. If you want to improve the chances of getting a clear answer to your question, make sure you only ask for one thing at a time.
7. Be specific – the more the better
Vague questions get vague answers. If you ask a question that can be interpreted in multiple ways, don’t be surprised if the answer isn’t what you expected to hear. If you want to know something you need to ask for it. A classic example is asking for an update on the status of a task. That sounds specific, but it isn’t. What exactly do you want to hear in the answer? Do you want to know if it is complete? Have we spent the budget? Is the customer happy? What time will it be ready? Each of these are specific questions and the generic question of ‘What’s the status?’ will get you some, or perhaps none of these things. The only way someone will give you the answers you want is if you ask the specific questions.
8. Get to the point
The longer you take to get to the point of a question the lower the chances of getting a clear answer. The more words we include in a question the more the other person has to remember, interpret, and understand. Our memories just aren’t that good. If you take 20 seconds to ask a question you’ll be lucky if the other person remembers half of it. That’s not likely to get you a clear answer. Get to the point of the question quickly and you’re more likely to get a short, clear answer.
9. Separate the question from why you are asking it
‘I want to ask you about ABC because…’ This sounds like a question but isn’t. It is an explanation, background and justification for asking a question. The question may be included somewhere in the description of why you’re asking, and that make it harder for the other person to hear it. When asking a question, ask the question. Don’t explain why you’re asking. The person you’re asking may not need or want to know why you’re asking. They might simply answer your question and you can both get on with your day. Why waste time giving information they might not need or want? If they do want to know why, they can ask you.
10. Don’t include your answer when asking a question
‘How do I do X? I think it should be done like this…but I’m not sure’. We answer questions at the same time as asking them for many reasons. We may want to show what we know — or think we know. We may be nervous about asking and try to hide the nerves by showing we have thought about the possible answer. There are other reasons. But whatever the reason, it’s a bad idea. If you answer your own question when you ask it you make it harder for the other person to understand the question you want to ask. It also wastes time because it takes longer to get to the real question.
11. Say when you need an answer
Some questions need an immediate answer, and others do not. When you ask a question the only person who knows the timeframe for needing an answer is you. If you make the other person guess the timeframe you are likely to be disappointed. You wouldn’t want them to take three days to answers a question you needed answered today. Avoid this issue, and other timing issues, by saying when you need or want an answer.
12. Ask your question before the topic changes
Sometimes questions should wait until the end. But, if a conversation has multiple topics it’s usually better to ask the questions before the topic changes. If you wait to long to ask, everyone must mentally shift back to the earlier topic. This is tiresome and often inconvenient. You can avoid this by asking questions before the topic changes.
13. Split a complex question into a series of simple questions
Complex questions are difficult to understand. Questions that include interrelating topics, multiple-parts, and complex context, are difficult to answer. If a question seems complex to you it will almost certainly seem complex to the person who must answer it. The more complex a question the less likely you are to get a clear answer. Instead of creating one complex, but complete question, create a list of simpler questions that can get to the answer you need. Simple questions are easier to answer.
14. Don’t ask questions that aren’t questions
When is a question not a question? When it’s a suggestion, accusation or it is a rhetorical question. Questions should be used to seek information. They shouldn’t be used to show what we already know, or — and this is even worse — to make people feel bad. When you ask someone a question make sure it really is a question and not something else that’s disguised as a question.
15. Don’t ask questions you could easily look up the answers to
‘How do I do a VLOOKUP in Excel?’ This is an example of an easy to look up question. We have a lot of these in our work. Just because Susan is the Excel expert in the office doesn’t mean she has the time to teach you how to use it. It would take you the same amount of time to look up the answer on Google. And if you look it up you won’t interrupt Susan or take time from her other work. The same is true for so many things at work — if you can easily look up the answer, don’t ask other people to do the work for you.
16. Be aware of your tone
The way we ask a question can change the meaning of the question. A question can change from an inquiry to an accusation simply by changing our voice. Be aware of this when asking questions at work. If you want a clear answer, make sure your tone matches your intent for the question. For example: ‘Why did you do it that way?’ can help you understand the steps in a process. But ‘Why did you do it that way?’ is asking someone to justify and defend their choice. The answer to each different tone will probably be different. Make sure you match your tone to the real question you want answered.