Ask the Right Questions At the Right Time

by Krishna on July 1, 2009

If you want to get something done by someone, there are two basic basic rules to follow, otherwise you will end up getting frustrated:

  1. Don’t ask them a question when they are unprepared or under-prepared to deal with your request.
  2. Don’t ask them a question when they don’t understand your expectations of a reply.

Other people don’t live in the same universe you do and they definitely don’t have the same thought processes you do. They have their own targets to meet and issues to resolve. Unless their only job is to be idle until you call upon them, when you interject your request without any warning, the first inclination for them would be irritation and a wish for you to disappear.

So make sure that you choose the right time to ask something of someone. Give them enough room to take care of whatever urgent matters are occupying their thoughts and then be able to handle you. One way to do that is using an asynchronous medium such as e‑mail to give prior warning or asking time to schedule a meeting to discuss a matter. Calling someone out of the blue and jumping directly into a request has a high probability of getting your request shot down.

Second, if people don’t understand what you are trying to do, they will always give the direct answer to your question, instead of finding ways to help you. For example, if you want a friend to help you with some house work and you ask him, “Do you know electrical systems?”, it is likely you will get a “No”. Instead, if you tell the friend that you are looking for someone to help you and then mention specific things, the friend may find some common ground and agree to help you.

Or in a work setting, if you ask an engineer, “Can you get this method down to 0.01 seconds?”, the answer may be “No”. But maybe the right question, “How fast can you get this method to run?” and the answer comes back as “0.05 seconds”, maybe that is something you can work with in combination with other factors that you can tinker with.

In more simple terms, ask open-ended questions that focus on the problem, not on the solution. When you do that, you may get solutions that are even better than what you originally thought of.

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