|Question Mark Graffiti, a photo by Bilal Kamoon on Flickr.|
What's the worst question ever? Let's get it out of the way right now: the worst question ever is the critical one that you didn't ask. There isn't just one. The issue is that it's unasked.
When you don't ask that question you are running on incomplete or inaccurate information that could cause lost time, poor product or service quality, or even dollar bills.
So if that question mark is so potentially critical to your success, why does it remain unasked?
- You think you know the answer already. You have made assumptions about the situation, the person, the problem or the cause of the problem. You have education or experience that has conditioned habits of thought and routine paths into your mind. You have a title that says you are the answer man or the answer woman. So you don't ask the question.
- You don't know what you don't know. Sometimes you are so in the dark about the situation that you don't know what questions should be asked, and what information is important. This is a common problem in start-up businesses, and with people who are new in their roles. There is a ton of information and skills that need to be mastered to operate successfully. There are the big, broad-brush pieces of information and skill, and there are smaller nuances that might not be immediately noticeable. When they don't ask questions at the outset they wind up learning the hard way - through trial and error. That might not be a problem. Or it might be a big one.
- You don't want to reveal your ignorance. Fear of looking stupid or fear of being taken advantage of can cause you to put up a shield of bravado and try to fake your way through. What if that person finds out that they can probably have their way with you in the negotiation phase of your interaction with them? One of the implications of this reason for not asking is that you are likely to avoid opportunities that you don't already understand. And when you avoid opportunities you cost yourself learning, future potential, and probably money.
- You are worried about hurting the other person's feelings. Some of your questions might elicit negative reactions from the person you're asking. There may be times when it makes sense to put the other person's feelings ahead of the information that you want or need. Sometimes, though, you compromise your results when you don't ask. If this person has demonstrated a pattern of not following through on their responsibilities it may be important for them to feel a bit uncomfortable. If they aren't performing and you're worried that they will quit if you confront them with questions, why are you worried? You won't be worse off if they leave. As a matter of fact, you may have the opportunity to select someone else who will do a better job.
Of course there are ways of asking questions that create discomfort and mistrust, and ways of asking them that actually strengthen the relationship between you and the other person. If you want to keep things productive:
- Use non-judgmental wording and body language if you want to prevent defensiveness on the part of the person you are asking. Defensive behavior is partly determined by their habits of thought, and you won't be able to eliminate it entirely. But you can reduce incidences by modifying your behavior.
- Disclose your purpose for asking. When the other person perceives that you might be using some sort of manipulative strategy with them, they will be less likely to share. They might even alter their answer a bit. Authenticity on your part encourages authenticity on their part.
- Ask open ended questions. This technique will give you more information per question, and it will also prevent the conversation from feeling like an inquisition to the other individual.
- Be willing to reciprocate, and maybe even go first by answering questions. When any relationship is one-sided, the individual who feels like he or she is giving more starts to lose his or her enthusiasm. Helpers tend to receive the most help.