If you’ve ever spent any time around a toddler, you know the pain of having to answer this question approximately 200 times per day. But it turns out our adorably obnoxious spawn may have something to teach us on this score. They understand the almighty power of knowledge, and they haven’t yet learned to be afraid or embarrassed to ask a question when they have one.
Recently, I challenged myself to ask at least one clarifying question before I take, or agree to take, an action. The results have been nothing short of transformative.
What I realized, in the course of this little self-experiment, is that I actively avoid asking questions. Perhaps it’s because I am afraid of looking foolish or ignorant. Perhaps it’s because I’m eager to get started right away. Perhaps it’s because I want to come off as helpful and agreeable and thus say yes to things I don’t fully understand, or the consequences of which I haven’t thought through. Whatever the reason, it gets me into more trouble than I had previously realized.
You know, like that time you agreed to help a friend move… the day after you ran a half-marathon. Ouch.
Asking questions before giving a response does several important things for me:
It prevents me from making hasty decisions, or being mindlessly reactive
It gives me the information I need to take appropriate, efficient action
It empowers me to take responsibility for new areas and projects
It communicates to my interlocutor that I care and am taking this seriously
It deepens connection, empathy, trust, and affinity by establishing more genuine understanding
This being a work blog, I’ll focus on how asking questions can make you a more effective assistant and project manager. But if you keep the discipline going after work hours, it will also make you a better listener, and therefore a better spouse, parent, friend, etc.
All action begins with information.
Let’s look at an example. Here’s something that, if you’re an EA, you probably deal with on a near-daily basis.
Information I have:
Bossman hasn’t eaten yet and doesn’t have particular lunch plans for today
This is enough information to know that action is needed. I don’t have to wait for him to tell me that he’s hungry or ask me to get him lunch. I can anticipate his needs and take action based on what I already know.
Further information I have gleaned from experience:
His likes and dislikes
His dietary restrictions
His budget and preferred payment method
Information I still lack:
What is he in the mood for today?
Is he hungry right now? Did he have a late breakfast?
Does he want to get outside for a bit, or would he prefer food to magically appear in front of him?
Now, I could probably go ahead and take action given the information I already have. But there’s a pretty high percentage chance that my efforts will be wasted, duplicated, or unappreciated if I jump straight to buying him lunch without checking in first.
That said, I don’t want to waste his time (or mine!) by asking unnecessary questions. So we need to add another category here:
Information I can get on my own:
How long does he have for lunch? (check calendar)
What are the available options today? (check foodtruck websites, restaurant hours, etc.)
So, once I’ve done my research, I am prepared to ask a few specific questions that he should be able to answer succinctly, between meetings. Now I can poke my head in his office after he hangs up the phone and say:
“You’ve got 20 minutes before your next call. That’s enough time for a sandwich from Jimmy John’s or a chicken Caesar salad. Which would you prefer, and would you like to get it yourself or shall I pick it up for you?”
I’ve done as much of the mental work for him as possible, now all he has to do is pick A or B. And voila! In under a minute, I have all the information I need in order to take helpful and timely action.
Now, getting the Bossman lunch is an area I already have quite a bit of insider knowledge. What happens when I don’t even know enough to know what I don’t know?
Here’s a good starting point for pretty much everything:
Why? As in, what is the problem we’re trying to solve or the purpose of the action we’re looking to take? In our example, the why would be “Because Bossman needs food to function well.”
What? What’s the proposed action to address that? “Get him lunch.”
Wants? What are the specific preferences at play? “Sandwich or salad?”
When? Is there a deadline? “We have a 20 minute window.”
How much? What’s our budget? “Less than $10.”
I find that once I’ve covered these basics, it’s much easier to come up with more specific clarifying questions to fill in the blanks.
TL:DR: to take charge, you don’t need permission, just information.