IT Employment

Asking the right questions can help guide your career

Have you ever sat through a long meeting without asking a question? If so, you may be missing a good opportunity to improve your business performance. Columnist Bob Weinstein shows you how asking good questions can boost your career.

Consider how many questions you ask every day. Questions are so much a part of our conversations that we hardly give them a thought or consider their importance. Andrew Finlayson addresses this topic in his book Questions That Work: How to Ask Questions That Will Help You Succeed in Any Business Situation (AMACOM; $17.95). Finlayson discovered how important questions are in his present job as news director for KTVU Channel Two in San Francisco. “Few of us know how to ask questions well,” he says. “We’re taught to read and write, but no one teaches us how to ask questions. At home, parents often discourage children from asking questions (‘Stop asking so many questions!’) and in school, teachers are more focused on the right answers rather than asking great questions.”

The most successful people realize the importance of having a questioning attitude, Finlayson insists. “It’s especially important for techies,” he says. “They’re overwhelmed with so much information, they don’t need another challenge. What they need is a way to winnow down the information. The typical thinking is, ‘I don’t need more information on this project. I have to get it done today.’ But, if they asked more questions, they would stand a better chance of getting it done faster with less angst.”

In this article, I’ll point out some reasons Finlayson notes why people—and techies, in particular—are apprehensive about asking questions, and I’ll also relay some questions he says are critical to ask before making a career decision.

Why won’t techies ask questions?
Techies tend to approach problems as purely mechanical issues and fail to see the human aspect of a problem, according to Finlayson. Take the technician called in to fix a computer. The user is bouncing off walls because his or her system has crashed, documents are lost, or the system is frozen. Often, the technician can’t get started on the technical problem until the user’s emotional problem is resolved. That means calming down the panic-stricken user so that the technician can get accurate information in order to solve the problem. It might mean saying, “Can we work together to solve the problem?” One question then leads to the next until the technician has a clear idea of how to solve the problem.

Asking questions during job interviews is crucial
Most of us are uptight about asking questions because we don’t want to appear stupid or ill-prepared. Take meetings—the corporate plague—that that can eat up entire days. “Whole meetings can go by in which not a single question is asked,” says Finlayson. “How can there not be information people didn’t get?” Yet, most of us are reluctant to reveal what we don’t know. We have to get beyond that and admit it’s impossible to digest everything being said. That’s a crucial step in asking questions.

During job interviews, asking good questions is even more crucial. “A job interview is a clear demonstration of your ability,” stresses Finlayson. “It’s a mistake to accept the information given to you. Interviewers should never be asking all the questions,” he says. For every question an interviewer asks, you should ask one. It demonstrates that you’re not only a good listener, but that you also want information about the company.

Don’t assume job descriptions are correct. Finlayson advises coming to the interview with 20 questions you want answered. “It’s worth the effort,” he says. “The wrong job can divert you from your career path,” he says.

Important questions to ask during an interview
  • Why is this position important? (Employees holding noncritical jobs are the first to be let go during hard times.)
  • What was the last major project the person who held this job worked on? (It’s important to know how this person succeeded or failed so you can follow in their footsteps or avoid their mistakes.)
  • What challenges is the company facing? (Asking this question shows you’re going to try to help them address those challenges.)
  • How would you advise someone new to start off right in this organization? (Companies want quick studies.)
  • How will my performance be judged? (How the company benchmarks success tells you how fast you’ll move up the ladder.)

Inappropriate questions
  • What does the company do? (This shows you’re unprepared for the interview and do not care about whether or not you get the job.)
  • What kind of reputation does the company have within its industry? (All it takes is research.)
  • What kind of compensation package can I expect? (The time to ask this question is when a job offer is made.)

Barring the inappropriate questions, Finlayson says you can ask practically anything if it is phrased diplomatically and tactfully.

I agree. Asking good questions is a skill worth polishing.

How does a good question position a strong argument?
Send us your best business question, or an example of how the right question at the right time sent a discussion off in a new, more productive direction. Send an e-mail or post a comment below.

 
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