How To Overcome Your Fear of Asking Questions at Work

Written by Salina Jivani of “The Great Word Nerd” blog 

file3171263251671When I worked at Bank of America, I attended a training with our offshore employees from India. Of course because the entire team was together for the first time ever, the managers saw this as an ideal opportunity to fill our days with endless trainings, seminars and lunches, creating a draining agenda that left us scrambling for our hotel rooms by late evening.

One thing I noticed during those seminars was that while the America-based group sat engaged with a sprinkle of questions every now and again throughout each presentation, the offshore group asked a flurry of them. Quite honestly, I was amazed at their ability to so candidly and bravely barrel through question after question with rarely a breath in between. After about fifteen minutes, I felt embarrassed for the offshore group. By the second day, the endless questions became frustrating. By the third day, most of us were either clenching our teeth or falling asleep with our eyes open.

Don’t get me wrong, these were wonderful, smart, astute people who had some pretty interesting things to ask. And in the time we spent with them, they made me realize that the prospect of asking questions is perceived completely differently in the Western culture versus the Eastern one. Here in the good ol’ U S of A, excessive questioning is often perceived as annoying and a waste of people’s time. People who ask many questions are thought of as daft or slow to learn.

Subsequently in India, asking questions demonstrates eagerness, engagement and intelligence.

I will follow up on the latter and admit that when it came time to working on projects, the offshore team was always on par and even brought up game-changing inquiries, catching flaws in our plans or theories, which helped the onshore group further flesh out or even reconsider some thoughts. As a result, my admiration for them grew and I started wondering if perhaps instead of biting my tongue in fear of sounding stupid, I should venture out of my comfort zone every now and again and lodge some questions of my own.

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In fact, much after interacting with this group, I begin to pay more attention in future meetings to those who dared to ask multiple questions. And those who did almost always had a better understanding than the rest.

If you’re looking to excel in your career, it’s a good idea to start breaking out of the invisible bubble wrap we often wrap ourselves in in fear of sounding dumb or silly. Want to give it a try? Muster some confident and follow these simple rules to become a better, more informed, more engaged individual by learning how to ask intelligent questions.

Pay attention

This one might seem obvious, but it’s actually a lot easier said than done. We all have (very limited!) attention spans. And I’ll be the first to admit that I more often than I’d like to admit find my mind wandering during meetings. But that’s not okay—especially if you’re gearing up to be an intelligent questioner. You don’t want to sound silly and ask something that’s already been answered. Don’t be around anything that offers a distraction. Whether that’s your best friend/co-worker or the TV. Tune in completely. If you need something to do grab a notebook and take notes so you can keep yourself busy and better comprehend what each person is saying.

Ask the right question

If you hear something you don’t understand, gather courage and get ready to speak up. But before you do, be sure to think about what exactly it is you don’t understand, and phrase your question accordingly. For example, if the meeting is about a deadline that needs to be met, but you know that creating one of the project components will require time beyond the deadline, you could ask “Given the April 20 deadline, how do you foresee squeezing in the creation of the XYZ, which takes typically X days to complete?” instead of something like “But our deadline is April 20,” which could leave people confused as to what exactly you’re trying to communicate or what hurdle you foresee. This might seem simple enough, but sometimes it’s hard to articulate exactly what it is you’re trying to convey. So be sure to give yourself a moment to gather your thoughts and structure your question to accurately reflect your outlook.

Opt for open ended

Open ended questions will always yield you a more thorough, in-depth response versus a question that can be answered with a simple yes or no (also known as closed-ended questions). Notice that in the above given example question, we don’t ask a closed ended question, which would be phrased “Will we be able to meet our April 20 deadline with the creation of the XYZ?” If we did, it’s likely that the answer we’d get wouldn’t be a sufficient one or wouldn’t work to prove our point—that the deadline cannot be met or that alternative arrangements (or possibly a new deadline) need to be considered.

Focus on what you don’t understand

Once you pose your open-ended question and receive a sufficient response, analyze the response and see if there is any component of it that you’d like further clarification on. If not, you’re set. But if so, think about what you what you don’t understand or need clarification on and translate it into an open-ended question.

Probe for more    

If you’re hearing the response to your question, but aren’t able to comprehend it, it can be difficult to think of a follow up question. This is where probing is helpful. Probing means to encourage the replier to provide more details and information so that you’re able to connect the dots in your mind and make sense of what he/she is trying to say. Ask for examples, a deeper/more thorough explanation or simply say, “Could you help me understand by elaborating a little more?”

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Asking the right questions and making sure you understand the explanations provided will not only help you gain confidence and knowledge, but will also earn you the appreciation of those who will benefit from the results of your attentiveness.

So the next time you find yourself in a meeting where people around you seem to be speaking Pig Latin, throw back your shoulders, take a deep breath and fire away!

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