Do you ever get the feeling that people don’t really understand your questions?

MANTRA: Questions are what keep us fresh, up to date and active in the pursuit of excellence in our industry. Never stop asking questions.

Why doesn’t anybody answer me?

Here are my top tips for asking questions that get valuable answers:

  1. Exit the monologue: If you are the kind of manager that comes out of a meeting exhausted, then the chances are that you have been talking and hence concentrating for too long. The easiest way to get your team involved in the discussion is to ask questions. Sound simple enough, right?

    Well the chances are that if you are often seen to be the driver of a meeting, then breaking that silence might be difficult at first – those listening or failing to listen out of boredom or a disconnect to the topic are not used to being a part of the conversation. You will need to give them time to adapt, so don’t expect immediate results, we are human beings not robots, but you do need to make sure that you are asking the question in the right way. So if you are going to ask a question with the genuine anticipation of an answer there are a couple of things that you need to keep in mind.

2. Structure your questions in a way that they sound like a question not a statement. That means getting the word order right if you are not a native speaker of English. So instead of saying “The delivery is late – yes?” which is not a question, more of a statement with a question mark at the end, then people are going to feel unsure as to whether you expect an answer or not because they don’t know whether it was a statement or a question.

3. Slow down there, cowboy! The speed at which you speak makes a difference too. Think about it – if you are in a hurry or impatient, or perhaps under pressure, it is natural for many of us – hands up here -to speak faster, isn’t it? Why? Well, because you are thinking faster (it’s your topic, your worry, your problem) – you are already up to speed and aware of the facts, one step ahead. So when people are slow to react, or speak really slowly (perhaps because they want to express themselves clearly and professionally – longer still if they are speaking in a foreign language) then that can feel irritating. For the person being asked, fast questions put them under pressure, not an ideal environment for many people to think clearly. So if you do not want to intimidate people into silence (the safer option sometimes) then slow right down, choose your words carefully, take your time.

4. Eye Contact. In order for people to feel spoken to, then in our western culture, eye contact is an important way to connect with the people that you want an answer from. By looking at someone or catching their attention by looking at them, they feel addressed – that the question is aimed at them. Clearly this is difficult if people are not looking at you, hence…

5. Use names. Nobody wants to feel like a number and no matter how big the organisation and how important you are, being able to remember names is a relatively easy way to establish a connection with those around you. If you are hopeless at remembering names, tune into next week’s podcast. If you really cannot remember someones name or you want to address a group of people – those on a project perhaps, or with a similar job description, use labels. Address the testers, or those of you on Project XYZ. That will get people to look up and then you can establish that all important eye contact, appealing to them as an individual, appeal to their talents, their knowledge, ask for their opinions, objectives, suggestions or ideas.

6. Give Them Time. When everything you say makes an impression of you, where every comment carves your reputation, when the words that you use are a reflection of your professionalism, you take your time. You need a few moments to organise your message, to find a way to communicate what is on your mind effectively and efficiently. That takes time. So if people do not answer you immediately, that is a good sign, it means that they are taking the time to express themselves in a way that makes sense. So give people time, especially if English isn’t their first language to think about the answer first. Get comfortable with silence, it should not be awkward but a sign of respect to those listening that you genuinely want an answer. For those that are not sure whether an answer is really what you want, the silence makes it clear that you genuinely need their support or answers.

7. Really Listen. Nobody is likely to waste their time supporting you if they feel that you are unlikely to listen anyway, check your body language, speed of speech, tone of voice and much more to see if you are making an approachable impresssion, more about that in the podcast about listening.

It is better to feel like a fool for the moment that you ask your question, than to be the fool who never had the guts to ask.