How To Ask The Right Questions and Get Better Answers

Time is of the essence. If you’ve ever asked a question in a meeting and half of the time is spent going over what you already know, or worse, something that is completely irrelevant, you know the feeling of having your time wasted. Time is money, energy, and progress, so having your time wasted is not acceptable.

Here’s how to ask the right questions to get you the answers you need quickly.

 Photo via  Flickr

Photo via Flickr

As I grew into my role at my new job over the last few months, I’ve had to ask a thousand questions. Some were simple such as “How do I set up my benefits?” or “What’s the name of the nearest printer on the network?”

Others were a bit more complex, such as “What type of data do we collect about our users?” to “What’s our strategy for growing as a business?”

Regardless of the amount of detail required to adequately answer a question, we all want the same thing: The most accurate answer as quickly as possible.

There is something incredibly frustrating about asking a question only to get a long-winded, roundabout answer that doesn’t actually address your initial question. Even worse, especially for someone new to the field, is when the answer is actually wrong and leaves you misinformed.

I won’t say I’ve mastered the art of asking a question (and yes it is an art), but I’ve learned quite a few best practices.

1. Actually ask a question.

“I don’t get it,” is not a question. It is a statement of defeat. If you're completely lost, don't be afraid to start from the beginning, but always start somewhere. By saying "I don't get it," you're effectively saying "I have no idea what I'm doing, and I'm hoping that you'll tell me everything I need to know to get past this."

Instead, be very specific and describe exactly where in the process you've lost track of things. "I was following along, until you started talking about this topic. Can you explain again how you...?" That's a much better way to get what you need.

2. Come prepared.

Although you don’t know the answer to your question, you should know as much about the question and topic you're asking about as possible. By being very specific (starting to see a theme here) and establishing your existing knowledge on the topic early, you can cut to the important part and learn what you're missing.

Additionally, by coming prepared with information you're showing the person helping you that you're not wasting their time. When they know this, they are more likely to actually spend the time going through the relevant details more clearly than if they think otherwise. Being prepared moves you from being a nuisance to being a potential resource in the future.

Finally, going through the effort of preparation may end up giving you the answer before you ever ask someone. In general, the only stupid questions are the ones that can be answered by quickly reviewing the material you already have access to.

3. Don't start from scratch unless you need to.

Starting the learning process from where you understand is always quicker than starting from the beginning. Relate it back to what you already know. For example saying "This reminds me of the other topic we discussed yesterday, is that related?" gets the conversation going without needing to start over.

While the connections you draw may be completely off base, this tactic will either save you time or you’re no worse off having to start at the beginning. And again, it shows that you are thinking, and trying to better understand the topic.

4. Ask the right person.

All of the preparation and strategies for getting to the answer you need are for nothing if you don't ask someone who is in a position to help. Sometimes someone really wants to help, and is just trying to do the best they can. Other times the person you ask may not want to seem clueless and will just give you their best shot. Or maybe the person just hasn't received the latest information.

Also, in most situations, it helps to keep the level of questions appropriate to the person you're asking. The same way you would think twice before knocking on a Fortune 500 CEOs office door to ask where the nearest bathroom is, it's important to always consider the relative position of the people you ask.

5. Be prepared to take notes.

Even if it's just opening up your phone, make sure to write down the answers to questions. If it was important enough to ask, it's important enough to remember. Coming back to someone later and asking the same question is at best annoying, and at worst disrespectful.

Whenever I'm on a call, I have my notebook with me. Whenever I'm in a meeting, I have a pen and paper. If I know there's a very real chance I'll be asking an important question, even if it's just details of when and where to meet for dinner, I'm writing it down.

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Asking questions is an art that will be a part of your life no matter what. If you're not asking questions, you're not growing. However, getting the most out of the questions you ask lets you move on with the rest of your day and back to getting things done.

Take 30 seconds to think about your worst experience with asking a question. What went wrong? How would you fix it?

- Ryan