Career Woman

When – and how – to ask great questions at work

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One of the most important things for any businesswoman to achieve is making sure everyone knows that you’re competent, self-sufficient and reliable, overcoming any ancient inbuilt prejudices. This means that we might feel like asking questions would go against that portrayal of ourselves, eager as we are not to look needy or lacking in any way that might be used against us. But asking questions is actually one of the best ways to win friends and influence people in the workplace.

And here’s why.

What are the benefits of asking questions at work?

Research has shown that people who ask good questions at work can be seen as more competent by their peers, probably because they are the type not to sit on a problem for too long out of embarrassment or pride, so they get things done more quickly and effectively by asking for help when they need it. Asking questions also makes you seem more likeable, understanding and responsive, because you’re showing your vulnerability by asking, which makes people warm to you.

How to ask a great question

Of course, asking lots of questions isn’t the same as asking great questions. Bombarding your boss and colleagues with endless banal queries is going to have the opposite effects to the benefits we mentioned above. You’ll come across as annoying, unqualified and a strain on everyone’s patience. So you need to know how to ask questions in a way that impresses people rather than irritates them.

The best type of question to ask in almost any situation is an open-ended one, which means the answer can’t be a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Of course, if that is exactly the type of answer you want, that’s another matter, but mostly we are looking for more out of people than one word, so try to avoid asking questions that require you to immediately follow-up with another one because you haven’t got what you needed the first time around.

Silence can also be a powerful tool if you’re asking a potentially difficult question, so if the other person is taking a while to answer, give them the time they need to think about it, rather than jumping in and picking up the conversation yourself. This will also make you come across and patient, calm and authoritative.

Another key thing to remember is knowing when is a good or a bad time to ask, because if your boss is already stressed, they’re unlikely to be in a good frame of mind to discuss a raise or some extra time off that you want to take. Wait til things have calmed down.

What questions to ask and when

There’s many situations in the whole lifecycle of a job where you can ask killer questions that will help you either get the information you need or make a good impression on colleagues or bosses. From when you first meet them in a job interview to that awful situation where you’ve lost your job, asking the right questions will always help you to get a better outcome than you would if you stayed silent.

In a job interview, asking at the end what they make of you as a candidate might make you worry that you were coming across as a bit forward, but it demonstrates to them that you are passionate about the role and gets you some honest feedback to help you come away from the interview with realistic expectations of your chances.

When you’ve started your job, there’s lots of questions to ask on your first day but a key one would be asking who the key people are that you should be meeting in the first week. This will help you form good relationships with the people you’ll be working closest with, which can only work in your favor long term.

And then there’s your relationship with your boss, which is crucial for your happiness at work. In a one-to-one chat, why not ask what their most important task is and how you can help them to achieve it? This shows that you are interested in making their lives easier, which is bound to make them want to reciprocate and will certainly make a good impression on them.

That’s crucial when it comes to tricky discussions like asking for a raise, but it’s not always possible to get one when you first ask, because there’s lots of factors you may not be aware of. However, rather than just getting the ‘no’ and going back to your desk despondent, why not ask what you can do to improve your chances in the future? This will help you know what your priorities should be and will get you on track for the right answer the next time you ask.

There’s worse conversations to have than that one though. Sometimes you will receive negative feedback from your boss, and this is another opportunity to ask important questions, like requesting clarification on whatever area of work you have not succeeded in, which will help you make amends with a full understanding of the issue. Or there’s when you’ve lost your job, when you need to ask for a proper explanation so you can learn from any lessons you can take from it, and you can ask for a reference to help you get another job in the future.

These questions will all help you get ahead in your career as well as building great working relationships with your colleagues and your bosses. So which ones will you start using first?


About James Ellaby

James Ellaby is a trained journalist with over 15 years of experience writing about business, entertainment and technology.

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