It’s not true that the only reason someone would ask a question is for an answer. (I know, it’s sounding a little, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” but bear with me for a minute.) Sometimes people speak up to be seen, to look engaged, to make a point, or even just to hear themselves talk.
And that’s helpful to keep in mind, especially if you’ve started noticing that your questions aren’t getting the response you’re looking for. It could be that you genuinely need more information, but because of how you’re expressing yourself, the other person doesn’t know that and assumes you’re just asking for the reasons I listed above.
So, if you feel like you’re being dismissed, see if one of the reasons below could be to blame.
1. You Include Too Much Other Information
It’s true: If you stop by someone’s desk or shoot her an email that simply says, “What do you think?” she’ll probably have no idea what you’re referring to. But a more common problem is erring too far on the other extreme. You lead with a two-minute speech on every single idea you’ve had for a recent project or forward a lengthy email chain with two attachments. Then you end with a question.
Instead of viewing your summation as helpful context, or pouring over the emails before providing the exact guidance you need, the other person checks out along the way and replies, “Sure!”—which you then have to decipher.
To avoid this frustrating outcome, cut your message down whenever you can. See if there’s anything you can delete or shorten, and also look for places where you can add parentheses or links with an offer to share more—so the other person can opt in for (or out of) additional info.
If you need to include lengthy details, try “bookending.” Rather than saving your question for the end, lead with the fact that it’s coming. It sounds like this: “I could use some advice on [my latest project], because I’m not sure what the next step would be.”
By telling the other person to expect a question, you’ve prepared him to listen (or read) critically and respond. Now, he knows your goal isn’t just to share a status update, but that you’d like an answer.
2. You’re Not Actually Asking Anything
This culprit is somewhat similar to the one above. This time, you’re providing way too much information on the front end, but—let’s be honest—it’s intentional. You’d never dream of cutting down your explanation or focusing the other person the answer, because you really just want to share.
Maybe you want an excuse to introduce yourself to the audience at a presentation, so you discuss at length who you are and why you’re there—and then ask the speaker something she pretty much already answered. Maybe you’re feeling inspired and you want to share what someone’s idea made you think of or how it relates to your life and work.
And while it’s understandable, it doesn’t make a positive impression. It’s pretty clear that you actually just want an excuse to lecture or vent or be seen, and unfortunately, when the time comes that you have a real inquiry, you may not be called on again.
If you’re not trying to steal the spotlight, rather you just have a half-baked idea, give yourself an extra minute to process. If you speak up before you’re sure what you’re really asking, the info you get in return may not be that helpful anyway. So, take the time to drill down to what you need to know, and if the other person has moved on say, “I had a question on an earlier item…” If you feel like this would disrupt a new train of conversation, write it down and follow up later over email: The speaker will be complemented he left you thinking about what he said!
3. You Rarely Take the Advice You’re Given
Part of being a good friend is knowing that sometimes someone will ask your advice only to ignore it, and it’s your job to love her anyways. There’s no such understanding in the office. I mean, yes, you expect your colleagues and boss know that sometimes you’ll ask for their opinions and after consideration you’ll go a different route. But if you routinely ask questions—and then ignore what the other person suggests—it makes sense he’d stop sharing his advice.
That’s because thoughtful answers take work. They take active listening and consideration and creative thinking. And each of us has only so much of that to go around on a given afternoon. So, if someone takes the time to give you feedback—and the end result is the same as if you’d never spoken—it makes sense that the next time you come by for a brainstorming session, she’s suddenly really busy.
So, be honest about your goals. Just like bookending is really helpful when you have a question, it can also save a lot of time and frustration all around when you don’t. If you start by saying, “I’m pretty sure I know what direction I’d like to take this project, but I’d love to run my thinking by you…” the other person knows your mind is pretty much made up. This feels a lot less like a bait-and-switch than having someone answer a list of questions create a new strategy for you only to end with, “I think I’m going to stick with my way—but thanks!” Now, she’s on the same page that a new perspective may shift your plan (but it probably won’t).
You probably ask enough questions over the course of a day that you’re not going to be strategic about every single one. (And that’s OK.) However, if you’re desperate to get better answers, you may find putting a little extra thought into how you go about it will make a big difference.