In much of our life, our competence is measured by our ability to provide answers. At work, we may feel that asking questions is a sign of weakness or incompetence. But thinking we must have all the answers, whether to save face or to project competence, can have negative results. On the other hand, being curious won’t kill us or our careers. In fact, asking questions keeps us from making costly mistakes and helps us build trust.
Asking questions has obvious practical benefits. Even when you think you understand a request, it’s often helpful to ask questions to verify your understanding and fill in details. The last thing you want to do is complete a request only to discover you’ve misunderstood the assignment because you made assumptions that turned out to be unfounded. By clarifying intent, asking questions avoids misunderstandings, not to mention wasted time and energy.
And asking questions also can have subjective benefits because it indicates your desire to understand the other person’s perspective and your curiosity about the subject. Think about when you’ve received an answer to a question. You may agree or disagree, but usually getting an answer brings an end to your thinking about the subject. However, when you’re asked a question, you’re encouraged to continue thinking about the subject, resulting in a deeper conversation and greater openness to the topic.
Soviet psychologist and psychiatrist Dr. Bluma Zeigarnik found that people remember incomplete or interrupted tasks better than completed ones. Once they completed a task, they stopped thinking about it. But when they were not allowed to finish a task, they continued to think about it long after the exercise ended. This phenomenon is known as the Zeigarnik Effect. Asking questions can have a similar effect, leaving the mind open to mulling over ideas and new perspectives.
You might be concerned that asking questions could be perceived as a challenge, not as curiosity. But if posed correctly, questions can actually communicate respect for a person’s knowledge and ideas. Imagine someone who feels strongly about an issue and has a lot to say about it. If you interrupt him with questions before he has completed his thoughts, he is not likely to be open to your thoughts on the topic. Your ability to influence him increases if you allow him to say all he has to say and then paraphrase his ideas to indicate that you understand him. Through this process, you strengthen your relationship with him, express respect for his ideas, and leave him more willing to view your questions not as a challenge but as an honest inquiry. His mind is clear to hear your questions without animosity and consider your perspective without bias.
Keep in mind, too, that the words you choose can affect how someone hears your question. If you begin your question with “but,” you immediately imply disagreement and create conflict, especially with someone who may be sensitive to challenge. “But isn’t it more important to first finish the Beringer project?” might be an appropriate, albeit pointed, question. Consider how it might be received with just a few subtle changes: “I understand your instructions, and I want to know whether it’s more important to first finish the Beringer project.” Note that this second version is not, technically, a question, though it will be understood as one.
Relationships are strengthened by staying open, asking questions, and seeking understanding. So be curious: it’s a sign of intelligence and respect, and it beats barking up the wrong tree.