You care about your career – or at least about not being fired. You want to impress, and you don’t want to irritate. But sometimes you just need answers. So naturally, you’re wondering how you can get them. More specifically, if you’ve ever puzzled over how to ask questions at work without being annoying, you’re not alone.
This isn’t a matter of idle curiosity, either: roughly 2 million employees in the United States are fired every year. It’s a legitimate concern, and one you should know how to handle starting today. Luckily, this quick guide will tell you all you need to know.
1. Consolidate Your Questions
One thing you can be sure everyone hates is to get battered with questions day after day. That’s no way to improve your standing at work. Moreover, it will quickly turn off anyone who was otherwise inclined to help you.
Instead, consolidate your questions. Use a notebook to track them as they come up. When you have a decent number, and no more than once every few weeks, take them to the appropriate people.
2. Look Everywhere Else First
Before you ask questions, always always see if you can find the answer yourself first. If a question is in the employee handbook, for example, you’re going to look like a bit of an idiot. Ditto if it is right there on the company server, or was taught to you in training.
Instead, put in some time. Do your research. Ask peers if they know anywhere you might look for more information.
Once you exhaust your own resources, you can safely write that question down in your book. You should still save it for later, but now it has been vetted.
3. Go to the Right Person
The good news is, seeking advice won’t necessarily be met with disdain or even irritation. Many people like to have their opinion sought. It is flattering.
In fact, they tend to find questions asked of themselves more worthwhile than questions asked of others. Moreover, when you have queries about a difficult project, people find that more legitimate than an easy one.
Similarly, people appreciate when your question goes to the expert than to a non-expert. That means you should steer clear of the people who feel more approachable (your peers or friends). Instead, brave the person who really knows what they’re talking about.
4. Keep Questions Targeted to the People Who Know
In some cases, your questions are for more than one person. That’s okay, as long as you separate them and target them carefully.
You want to avoid two things:
- Bringing questions to the wrong people
- Bringing the same question to multiple people, which is a waste of time and resources
This is true whether it’s your manager, your boss or even someone in the C-Suite. Just make sure they’re the likeliest person to have the answer, and you’ll be fine. If you’re looking to cultivate a mentor at the same time, read this book.
5. Bring in Everyone Who Matters
Another secret when it comes to how to ask questions at work without being annoying is to set up meetings. Yes, everyone hates them. And yes, sometimes they’re the right answer.
That’s because in some cases, your question may involve more than one person. Hence the meeting. That way, they hear exactly the same thing and can talk to one another.
Moreover, it keeps them from feeling like you went behind their backs. If you come to people separately, they may worry you didn’t like their advice and are seeking it elsewhere. They may feel betrayed or inconvenienced for no reason.
6. Be Straightforward
“Can I pick your brain?” is annoying, according to experts. It’s not only a total cliché, it fails to give the person you’re asking adequate information. How can they know whether it’s worth their time to help you?
Instead, be very clear about what you want. Tell them what you’ve got questions about and how long you think it will take. If their expectations are set ahead of time, they’ll be happier.
If your company has a calendar where you’re allowed to block out time with a boss or manager, do that. If not, try to avoid email and other impersonal mediums. Ideally, go to them in person when you make your request.
7. Be Positive
Not every situation is a good one. Perhaps you’re being bullied or your paycheck was short for no reason you can discern. Maybe you aren’t happy with your position or you feel you deserve a promotion that hasn’t happen.
The bottom line is, you might not feel positive, and that’s okay. You still need to take a positive tone.
It’s not hard to see why this would be true. How much do you want to help someone who is just there to grumble? Show up with your attitude in check and a direct way to approach the problem.
8. Understand What Kind of Advice You Need
There are several types of advice. Sometimes you need an answer to a specific question or two. Other times you’re looking for ongoing guidance.
It’s important to understand this for the sake of the other person. They are weighing their time and resources against your need, after all. Be straight up about whether they can expect to be done with this quickly or not.
If they have no interest in ongoing mentorship, they’ll say so. That might not be what you want to hear, but that also is okay. Being honest will keep everyone on the same page, which is more beneficial in the end.
9. Think Your Question Through All the Way First
When you’re planning how to ask questions at work without being annoying, one of the most important steps is to minimize the amount of time and work the person you’re asking has to do. They’re already doing you a favor (assuming they say yes). The least you can do is keep them from having to do extra work.
Therefore, plan your questions out and think them through. Rather than saying, “I’m having a hard time with Deborah in accounting,” you need to lay out the scenario very specifically.
Say something like “Deborah in accounting fails to put my expense reports through in a timely fashion. This puts me behind every month and while I don’t want to blame her, my boss is asking questions. How can I handle this most gracefully?”
10. Avoid Taking Potshots
Let’s say you have laid out the situation in detail. Deborah is clearly the problem. You need help, and now your person can figure out how best to give it to you.
However, don’t let it turn into a bash-fest. Even if Deborah in accounting is the problem, you don’t want to set up a “me versus her” mentality. That can backfire.
One of the secrets of how to ask questions at work without being annoying is to be gentle. Be understanding and compassionate. Treat Deborah’s feelings like your own, and you’ll get much more respect in the long run.
11. Do Your Best to Act on the Advice You Get
Whatever you’re told in response to your questions, try to act on. You may not like the advice, and that’s okay. Sometimes the hardest answer is the best one.
It’s very important to avoid inaction, though. If you take up someone’s time – especially an expert’s – and then do nothing with it, you’ll come off looking badly. At best you’re incompetent, at worst you’re a whiner you just wanted to vent.
Instead, use the information to make a plan. Decide what you need to do, then break it into concrete steps. Plan them out on your calendar and tackle them a little at a time until they’re done.gru
12. Show Your Thanks
The last step in how to ask questions at work without being annoying is to demonstrate your thanks afterward. Everyone wants to feel appreciated, even the COO or the senior partner.
In addition to putting their advice into effect as soon as you can, make sure to thank them directly. It only takes a minute to visit your supervisor or other superior and give genuine appreciation. There’s a lot to be said for face-to-face, so use it to your advantage.
Where possible, do more, such as recommending your firm to someone and making sure they know it. Send a small gift or leave a classy thank you card on their desk. Be genuine and don’t suck up, but don’t neglect this step either.
Now that you have a foolproof method for asking questions, you’ve got a great tool in your kit. It’s hard to approach your superiors at first, but if you keep working at it, you will get better.
And now it’s time to spread the love. Share this with someone you care about to help them along in their career. That way people will learn to look up to you as well!