Just Ask!

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Ever made an assumption that ended up being wrong? Whether it’s brought to light in front of a crowd or you quietly come to the realization on your own, it's not a pleasant feeling. So, how do we avoid doing it? By speaking up to confirm and asking clarifying questions!  

None of us want to hurt the feelings of people we work with or undermine their efforts. So when someone says something that sounds off or causes a head tilt, we often sit on our hands and fill in the blanks ourselves—which is dangerous.  

Assumptions can be disastrous to workflow, culture and morale. They degrade the trust you have for team members and can take a while to straighten out. It’s even worse when decisions get made with bad or incomplete data.  

We all must rely on information passed along by others. You’ve probably experienced how two people can hear the exact same words being spoken and yet still walk away with different interpretations.  It happens with written, verbal and nonverbal communication. Knowing how easy it is to get the wrong impression, you should feel empowered to make sure you're on the same page with your teammates and expect them to do the same with you. Even if it means asking a “stupid” question.  

So, I would challenge you to be brave. If you have a concern, think a wrong decision was made, feel like something is taking too long, or just have “a feeling,” speak up! The value of spending a few more moments to clarify the concern can vastly outweigh the potential damage done to your team. 

Your teammates do not expect you to have all the context all the time or to have completely thought through and researched the situation before speaking up. As an Enneagram 5, I struggle with putting those expectations on myself. But I’ve found that, chances are, someone else is thinking or feeling the same thing I am—or they aren’t thinking about it and should be. If I don’t say anything, I’ve robbed the decisionmakers from the chance to consider another angle.  

That brings me to how to ask hard questions the right way so that we protect our teammates but also have a productive conversation. 

To begin, consider your motivation. Are you truly trying to help or are you attempting to make yourself sound smart?  

Assuming you’re not talking just to make sure everyone knows you're in the room, approach the situation with the assumption that you don’t have all the context—and if you did have it, you would likely agree with what's being presented. 

Stephen Covey states it like this: “Seek to understand before being understood.”  

By humbly approaching the topic as if you're trying to learn more about it, you bring the issue to the table to be addressed directly, while inviting others to provide any missing context they may have.  

And if your question brings to light something that was missing, it disarms the situation and allows others to save face if they hadn’t considered the situation from that point of view. Then they can be a part of solving it.  

Here’s an example. You're sitting in a meeting, and a presenter is explaining the progress made on a project this week. But to you, it feels like this project is dragging on way longer than it should.  

You can approach the situation by asking these clarifying questions: “I remember you covering this a few weeks ago and setting timeline expectations for us. I don’t recall all the details but are we still on track with the original timeline or has something changed?” Once the team members responds, you can dig a little deeper: “Ah, that makes sense. Do we have guardrails on this project that would cause us to consider continuing or potentially changing direction?” Assuming the team member says no, you could say, “Okay, no problem! Do you think we should have them and if so, what would you recommend?”

You aren’t doing yourself or your colleagues any favors by not asking clarifying questions or voicing your concerns. Let’s be brave, forgiving, clear and kind. 

Based on what you’ve said, it’s not that you’re assuming you’re wrong. It’s that you’re posturing yourself to learn more about the issue. That’s why I made this edit. Okay change?

I added a couple lines here to provide a little more context.