Asking the right question, the wrong way and at the wrong time

It happens to everyone from time to time that we ask questions we wish we haven’t or make a statement we later realize wasn’t the smartest thing to say. We regret it and we even go and apologize. We know deep inside that it simply wasn’t the right time or place to ask the question. So why are we doing this? What does it bring? What does it take away? And what can we do about it?

To take a rather simplistic view, the answer can be pretty simple in most of the cases. It is us trying to feel important, trying to contribute without having an actual useful content to convey, us being obsessed with a particular topic, us trying to show off. It is a human nature and in fact, asking questions is a very desirable behavior and as the saying goes there are no stupid questions. However, there is such a thing as asking the right question, but the wrong way and at the wrong time.

Just imagine this situation. You are a new manager on a meeting with your direct superior talking about budget needs for the next year. You don’t really understand how the process works, what is the required input, how the decision will be done. It is a totally appropriate to ask any sorts of questions to understand both the big picture and the details. Your boss is here to provide that level of detail needed for you to do a good job and he is here to explain how things work.

And now imagine asking the same sort of questions in totally different setting. You are on a meeting with several other managers and you are listening to the CEO talking about a strategy for the next five years. The budgeting topic is still on top of your mind and it is really important to you to understand it, so you ask the CEO, “and what about budget for this year?” See the difference? The CEO may answer your question in some general terms without really providing a detail answer as that is not the focus of the meeting. But even if he does, you have shown that you don’t pay attention and you may not even belong to that room. We are talking strategy here and you are asking about some tactical aspect. And if the CEO is not careful enough he may get into the details thus derailing the meeting. That way you got your answer, but you have missed an opportunity to discuss the strategy and see the big picture. And what is worse you robbed others of the opportunity too.

So how do you ensure you are asking the right questions at the right time?

  • Always focus on topic being discussed and don’t try to broaden it too much as it will dilute the original message
  • Always consider whether the question and the answer will bring something to the rest of the audience, if not, take it offline
  • Always consider whether you are asking the right person who is best suited to provide you the answer

And if you are not sure whether it is the right time to ask just say something like “Can we talk offline after the meeting? I have couple more questions about budgeting that may not be relevant to others.” That way you show that you understand the reason for the meeting, you value everyone’s time and you want to understand impact on topics important to you. It may very well happen that several participants will say “Hey, I would be interested in that too.” and it will be added to the meeting as a legitimate topic.

This being said, please, always ask as many questions as possible as that is the best way to learn 🙂