Let’s play make-believe. You are in a meeting with several people; each of them is an expert in different facets of the topic. The discussion is strategically important, stakes are high, but you realize that some aspects of what is being said are unclear to you. A lingering feeling enters your thoughts; you wonder if you are the only one, or if everyone is puzzled by the same thing, and they are just not saying anything. You look around, and everyone seems to be immersed in the discussion. Fear that you might be the only one not understanding creeps in.
In that moment, you can choose to do one of two things:
- You can ask the question, risking to show a lack of understanding.
- You can keep that question for yourself, hoping the answer will come up later.
It happens to everyone
I can’t count the number of times I have experienced this dilemma and talked myself out of asking questions, rationalizing my choice with excuses such as:
- I am probably the only one, not understanding, why should I waste people’s time.
- Somebody must have talked about it. If I ask, it would be admitting that I wasn’t paying attention.
- I am supposed to know the answer; I’ll keep quiet to not “get in trouble.”
- I don’t know the answer, but I am sure I can eventually figure it out.
- There are no breaks in the conversation; I don’t want to interrupt and sound rude.
- We are almost out of time; later, I’ll ask someone.
- I don’t know how to phrase my question, so I will just wait.
- It is (probably) not important.
There is only one thing to do
This situation is common, and there is only one right thing to do:
Ask the question, now!
If you have a question, asking it is crucial. In fact, if you are in need of clarification, most likely somebody else is too. Your question, even if you don’t know how has the potential to spur an important discussion. It could improve the outcome of the conversation, by revealing aspects that were not yet explored in sufficient details. The true power of your question is not in the answer itself, but in the dialog, it could potentially generate.
Questions give experts an opportunity to embark in parallel explorations of related aspects of the topic. Even if the answer already came up during the conversation, and you just missed it, bringing it up again could encourage discussing it in different ways with different words. That helps to crystallize the concepts.
Questions as conversation guides
Questions are not only important to get clarifications; they are also ways to direct the conversation where you want it to go.
If you are interested in leading the discussion in a particular direction, asking questions is a tool at your disposal. It can push others to reach conclusions you already reached; sometimes, even make your point for you. Meanwhile, it gives you a way to verify your conclusions; the resulting debate could bring up important points you didn’t consider.
Leading a meeting with questions is especially useful when you are seeking ways to get a team’s feedback on a topic or get the group to buy-in a strategy. It pushes the conversation to flow where you want; sometimes it guides the team to reach the same conclusions you already reached. However, if you are lucky, you’ll realize that your conclusions were faulty, and better ones will surface.
Questions are assumption-killers
The need to verify assumptions is another important reason to not hold back asking questions. Assumptions lurk behind every corner, and a question can help to bring them to the light, confirm their validity or expose their flaws.
As discussed in a previous post, assumptions are the mother of all mistakes. You can think of questions as tools to avoid mistakes, ensuring deliberate coverage of the many aspects of a topic. Questions help to shine the light in all the dark corners.
Assumptions are innovator killers. Asking questions kills assumptions, stimulates creative thinking and encourages deeper problem-solving. Answers to assumption-killing questions are platforms to jump to other questions and explore topics in greater depth. The result is deliberate innovation, fewer assumptions, and stronger products.
Questions when interviewing for a tech job
In the context of tech, a discussion about questions would not be complete without mentioning their role during a job interview. While the interviewer is the one who usually asks most of the questions, if you are the interviewee, I recommend turning that equation around, as much as the interviewer allows you to.
If you are interviewing, you should make sure to ask at least one question of each of the following types:
- Clarifications about questions the interviewer asked you. Do not start answering if you are unclear what the question is. Many times I chose not to hire applicants because they answered the wrong question, and never bothered asking for clarification.
- Questions about the company. You want to showcase the research you did, your interest for the organization and your natural curiosity and passion for seeking information.
- Questions about the position. You want to convey the message that you are looking for the right place to work; not just “a job”.
- Questions about the environment and the culture. You want to demonstrate that you are trying to picture how life would be if you got the job.
- Questions about access to career progression, and how it works. You want to show that you are looking for a job for the long term, and want to know what your future looks like.
- Questions about the financial stability of the company. You want to demonstrate business acumen, good judgment, and ability to seek information to make informed decisions.
I will write extensively about job interviews it in the future.
Stay tuned and… always ask the question!