Why I Ask Lots of Questions And Think You Should, Too

BlogHer Original Post

Have you ever had a group email come in and know someone is going to have a question? And then five minutes later BOOM! There's that question. Hi! That's me. I ask a lot of questions and I think you should, too.

I wasn't always this way. When I was in K-12 I hated asking questions. I rarely had a problem raising my hand to provide an answer, but asking questions? That was scary. It made me feel vulnerable and no one wants to feel that way in high school. I got a bit braver in university, though it was a process. At first I'd save my questions for my professor's office hours. I had excellent professors who treated my questions with respect and consideration. They never made me feel like I was asking a stupid question. As my classes got smaller, I got braver and started asking more questions in front of my classmates.

After graduation I spent a few years bumping around in an entry-level job before launching myself into a technical writing career. My job was to take code-heavy software specifications and turn them into readable instructions for users. In order to do this well, I had to ask lots of questions — LOTS and LOTS of questions. It was often obvious some of the people I was directing those questions to really thought the questions I was asking were stupid questions.

It was surprisingly freeing.

If people were going to think all my questions were stupid (even when they weren't!), why not ask the questions I thought were stupid questions? So I did. I did occasionally receive some attitude, but I got answers and that was the point.

And then I got braver.

When a new project would land on my desk, I'd read through the requirements. Then I'd make a list of all the questions I had. I'd read through the materials and all my emails again. Sometimes I found some answers but quite often I found myself emailing my manager a list of questions. I was blessed with excellent managers who embraced my question-asking habit. The questions I asked helped our team address issues at the beginning of a project, rather than hitting roadblocks at critical times. It got me noticed. I started getting assigned more involved projects. I became the team risk assessor. And 18 months after I started as an intermediate technical writer, I was promoted to project manager. Suddenly I was juggling a big list of projects and a team of writers and editors. It was a huge leap for me.

All because I asked lots and lots of questions.

Why I Ask Lots of Questions And Think You Should, Too

I still ask questions all the time. I'm not going to say I never get nervous before asking questions. I sometimes worry people will find me annoying or think I'm asking stupid questions. But there's always this voice in my head I call "Worst Case Scenario Karen." I can't shut her up just by ignoring her. (Trust me, I've tried.) She's the voice in my head that tries to pick apart every plan, not because she wants it to fail but because she wants it to succeed. Part of any successful project, whether you are painting a room or publishing a book, is knowing where the potential pain points are and doing what you can to prevent them. Pretending they don't exist and not having a plan for them doesn't help anyone. So, I keep asking questions because I know by asking questions, I am doing my job to the best of my ability.

Here are some things I try to remember when asking questions:

Never throw anyone under a bus and don't play the blame game. No project runs completely smoothly. Tools break. Tasks get delayed. Shit happens. Always look to trying to prevent problems in the future, not rehashing those that have already happened.

Read your audience. Reading the room is important when it comes to asking questions. Not every meeting is the right meeting for you to interrupt with questions. Sometimes people are pressed for time. Sometimes they just aren't in a good mood that afternoon. It doesn't mean you shouldn't ask your questions, but maybe just not right that second.

Work the backchannel. I often don't have the same information someone else does. If I think someone else on my team might know the answer, I'll often flip them an email or an IM to say, "Hey! What about x?" Quite often they know the answer.

Don't ask questions if you can find the answer yourself. If I'm capable of finding the answer myself, either by digging through my emails or using Google to research something I don't understand, I do it. It's not my team members' jobs to give me answers when those answers are easily accessible.

Be aware of your strengths, but also your weaknesses. In every job I've had, one of my biggest strengths has been getting to know the tools I use very, very well. I am great at troubleshooting tools. But I'm not as strong in other areas and I need to be aware of my weaknesses. Sometimes I need help with those areas and asking for help is not a weakness, but not being aware of my weaknesses or doing anything to strengthen them is one.

Be prepared to take on tasks. If you ask a question, be prepared to be the one to take on the work. If I speak up in a meeting and say, "Hey! Have we considered x?" I need to be prepared for someone to come back and say, "Oh! Hey! We missed that. Karen, can you look into it and get me the answer by tomorrow?"

Not everyone will appreciate your questions. There are days when my questions simply don't go over well, even with people who normally appreciate them. Sometimes people are tired and just don't want to deal with an aspect they had previously not considered. Sometimes they are seen as insubordination. There have been times when people have gotten just flat out angry when I've asked questions. I'm not going to say I don't care or I don't occasionally get insulted at their poor reactions. It can sting. But I also know that by asking questions, I am doing my job.

So, go ahead and raise your hand. Have the #CourageToday to ask your questions. I promise, it's not that scary and it feels really good to get answers.

BlogHer Community Moderator Karen Ballum also blogs at Sassymonkey.

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