You asked me a question-- I must have done something wrong
January 18, 2021 6:01 PM   Subscribe

At work, everytime someone pings me or I get an email with a request, I get a heightened sense of agitation-- I need to respond immediately, or I just feel... bad that they are asking the question? Then I wonder what I could have done not to have the person ask the question (i.e be proactive, etc)? Help me be more chill about this.
posted by sandmanwv to Work & Money (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
There are LOTS of reasonable questions/emails you might get that are out of your well-intentioned control. Some examples: 1) someone forgot what you told them, 2) someone didn't read the documentation that they should have that you own or someone else owns, 3) someone wants to confirming in writing that thing you told them because it's important to them or their boss and they want to cover their butts, 4) someone is from an "ask culture" and is like, maybe sandmanwv knows and can help, let's try asking, 5) someone wants a favor from you, 6) someone knows they're meeting with you next week, but they want to get an answer earlier vs. waiting until then for a question or they forgot to ask you last time you met live to ask you that question, 7) someone's boss asked them a question they couldn't answer, so they need to ask you, etc. etc. Next time you get an email, you can run your mind through all these reasons (and more!) for why someone's email is not something you could have prevented.

Unless you are somehow managing a process where you should expect no questions (you can clarify with your boss/manager if this is the case), questions/requests are totally a normal part of business day to day.

If you really want to get more assurance that you are doing your best (as a human, not a super human with telepathic and fortune telling powers), you can: 1) see if there are commonalities to the questions you get, and if so, can you put it in a FAQ document to reduce the questions or maybe start a project to address the root cause of those questions, and 2) for common question askers, you can ask them - hey, I've gotten 3 emails from you, is there something I can do differently to support you better?

People also will let you know (if they're generally reasonable) if something they asked you is actually super critical. They'll say "this is urgent" or "I need to know by end of day" or, if you don't respond in 3 hours or 24 hours, they will bump the email again or ping you for your attention. If the same people are the ones always emailing you (and they are self-aware), you can also "train them" to be more helpful to you, e.g., if you always follow up and say, when do you need this by?, they will more likely put that in their future correspondences to you; if you are actually kind of bad at responding to emails but good at responding over pings, they'll use the form of communication they need.
posted by ellerhodes at 6:45 PM on January 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

This sounds a little bit to me like impostor syndrome. I don't have any suggestions as to how not feel what you're feeling but perhaps giving a possible name to what you're feeling will point you in the direction you need to go.
posted by ashbury at 7:10 PM on January 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

Remind yourself that your efforts at anticipating and answering questions before they can be asked will only catch the questions that were meant to be anticipated.
posted by DrGail at 7:22 PM on January 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

Can you slow the flow of the convo by opting out of synchronous communication? Turn off alerts, only check your messages every X hours, and when you do check them, hopefully enough will have built up that you can triage and rank them before responding.

Also you can set some rules, like-
- I always respond to Boss within an hour.
- Questions that the person should already know or could easily look up? I respond tomorrow.
- Bill is a lazy user and his concerns are never urgent, so for all issues from him, I respond tomorrow.

If you become slower than google, people around you will start googling!

In terms of seeing their questions as a failure in your own communication- there has to be a balance of how much info you give at a time. I recently felt intimidated by a new collaborator so sent them a FULL BRIEF with every single question they could ever have anticipated, nicely answered. But.... they only skimmed it and missed the single most important part in their reply. That was my fault, I buried the lede with too much info! Better if I had sent only the main point and let them ask follow-up Qs- if I'd done that we'd have gotten it right the first time.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 7:45 PM on January 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

There is nothing wrong with working out how to stop them asking questions, as you suggest. Improving documentation is indeed being proactive. You don't have to be the one to do it, and it's worth keeping a shopping list of these items and raising it in an appropriate forum if you simply have too much to do to fix it. You can do this by just noting the questions you're being asked and their answers in a document you keep as a log record.

Conversely, if the question they ask is answered by a document, you can answer with 'look here' or ' the answer is X and you can find more of the same here'. You will find yourself repeating this, which is the nature of trining people.

Seconding that answers do not require instant response, particularly if what you're doing is more important. It's your job to do the most important things. There is always more work than time.

Asking questions does not make their lack of knowledge your fault, but on the other hand identifying why they're asking can make everyone's lives better. However, if you want credit for that, think about how to blow your own trumpet occasionally or it might get overlooked.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 8:17 PM on January 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Is there any way to start framing it to yourself that they are coming to you because you are "the authority"? Like, if someone pings you with a request, it's because they rely on you to get their things done, and so you're the one they go to when there is a thing they need solved.
posted by Lady Li at 11:22 PM on January 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

I probably spend a bit too little time anticipating questions, because some of those questions I get asked are kinda obvious, of the "yeah, should have included that info from the start"-variety. Of course those are the sort of questions I answer immediately - which is usually easy enough; obvious questions are quickly asked and quickly answered, no harm no foul. Generally I don't think the occasional follow-up email with clarifications is a huge deal.

And sometimes it might be necessary/better to do it that way, even if the questions were really obvious. Because people often ask the obvious questions, even if the information_was_included from the start. My experience is that there's often little use in trying to anticipate questions because a lot of people simply won't properly process information before it occurs to them to ask for it themselves. Because that's when they'll have an immediate use for it in mind, and lots of people simply don't really store information they don't have an immediate use for.
posted by sohalt at 12:39 AM on January 19, 2021

I tend to think the world is constantly evolving in surprising ways and therefore new questions will come up constantly as all the moving parts of my work world move into new alignments and throw up unique situations that raise fresh questions. It's not a sign of something gone wrong, it's an inevitable sign of a world in motion, as it always is.

Can you reframe it as "Huh, I'm really needed in this place, look at this little bit of knowledge I have that nobody else has, they're so lucky I'm here to provide that know-how and fill that gap."

Being asked a question is really a chance to exercise and demonstrate your usefulness to your employers and colleagues, not a failing. Show off your knowledge and (without being a dick, obvs) enjoy the fact you know something the asker doesn't!
posted by penguin pie at 2:43 AM on January 19, 2021

Best answer: I didn't have this exact problem, but I did have anxiety over closed-door meetings (because of one boss who, if he said to close the door, that meant I was about to be yelled at). Here is how I got over it: I looked at history, basically. So, if at new job, new boss asked me to come to their office and close the door, in the moment I would remind myself it's a different boss and different work culture, and everything generally went fine. Then, the next time I'm asked to do that, I would look back at the previous time, remind myself there was nothing to worry about, and that would help the anxiety. I would also look at the past in that, were there any complaints about me? No. Did I do anything recently that could be complained about? No. Then what am I worried about specifically? In your case, you can look back at the last time the same person asked a question and ask yourself if there was any reasonable way for someone to anticipate their question? Probably not. Gradually build a history with each person seeing they ask reasonable questions that you could not anticipate. And if you could anticipate it? Well, you're human, so you make mistakes. I've been in office environments for over 20 years, trust me, no one cares that you didn't anticipate one question. When they care is if you have a pattern of not anticipating questions AND not anticipating causes real delays (real, meaning missing deadlines, and not meaning finishing a task takes an extra 20 minutes). And if that is the case, if you should be anticipating the questions and not anticipating means missed deadlines, talk to your manager about it. They know your company's culture and may have some tips on how to handle it (such as, maybe loop them in earlier than you normally do). But if you usually anticipate the questions you should anticipate and the ones you miss don't cause serious delays, cut yourself some slack.
posted by Meldanthral at 7:16 AM on January 19, 2021 [3 favorites]

Anticipate questions as routine: Your thought pattern should be "Okay, just sent out the e-mail, now to wait for the questions." Finish your communications with a solicitation for questions, just to prove to yourself that you are okay with them. "Let me know if anyone needs any more information, or this is not clear. I'd be happy to go over it again or answer any specific questions."

Remember that questions are not always critical; they fill an awful lot of needs. Questions can be a request for clarity, a desire to know even more, or a polite affirmation from someone whose micro-culture doesn't accept short responses. They might be happening for purely social reasons, such as if the person in accounting feels out of touch with the production staff and takes every opportunity to interact with them. They may simply be a paraphrase, not so much asking you to confirm what you meant, but confirming for you that they understood you. The person asking these questions is also likely to be more self critical than they are to be criticizing you. They may be cursing their concentration or their own reading comprehension skills or wondering how come they are failing to stay in the loop again. They may be a delaying tactic from someone who is not ready to act on the information you have provided.

Respond to all questions with the pleasure of an instructor discovering a pupil has an active interest in the subject. You want more info and more details? Excellent! Fake it if you must, but reply from this perspective even if you can't actually feel it. Questions are an appeal to you, the authority.

Keep track of who is asking what questions, and how their questions create a pattern. You may discover that one person prefers to hear things in person than to read messages closely. They prefer to skim and then discuss. Another person might always ask a question to signal their own authority and the fact that they are paying attention. Someone else might always asked questions pertaining to when things happened or will happen. If you discover one of the people you work with is always looking for specific information you can include that information in your communication, even if all you can say is "I do not know when we can continue on this project but do not anticipate hearing from the supplier before January 24th..."
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:47 AM on January 19, 2021

Even if you spent your very valuable time writing novel-length emails* to preemptively address 95% of potential questions.... you would still get questions, because people didn't read their email carefully enough.

*don't do this anyways, because the vast majority of people don't want to receive novel-length emails.

To look at it from another perspective, it not necessarily the sign of poor instruction if students have questions for their teacher after the lesson.

I think the nature of the inquiry can help determine your response. Not all inquiries are urgent. If there are common themes to these questions, perhaps you might want to create some sort of documentation to refer folks to. In some situations, a quick meeting might be a more effective way to disseminate the information than an email.

Finally, do you have a trusted colleague at work that could review an example email chain and provide candid feedback about any clarity issues? If so, this person, can help you calibrate your response.
posted by oceano at 9:07 AM on January 19, 2021

To look at it from another perspective, it not necessarily the sign of poor instruction if students have questions for their teacher after the lesson.

Seconding this! I used to always try to give students all the information they needed in advance, and it doesn't work for several reasons. Here's a very incomplete list.

1) Giving people too much information at once is overwhelming and reduces retention.

2) People often aren't motivated to absorb the information until they needed the information to complete a task. Let them ask for the information when it is directly relevant.

3) Not everyone needs the same information. For any given topic, some people have certain background knowledge or happen to be good at intuiting solutions or finding information on their own, and others, through no fault of anyone's, don't. It's more efficient to see who needs the extra information and provide it on demand than to waste the time of many people who don't need to hear it from you.

4) Some information just doesn't make sense until you're in the middle of things. Rather than trying to do a really good job of describing Widget A and how to rotate it 30 degrees counterclockwise in step sixteen, it's often more effective to let people familiarize themselves with Widget A on their own and then give the instruction on how to position it when they ask.

5) Only a subset of people will need some specific bits of information. If people are likely to find themselves in EITHER situation A, situation B, or situation C, the situation-A people don't need to know what to do about B and C, and so on. Maybe no one in this group is even in situation C! It's more efficient to let people who find themselves in each situation ask about it.

Like Jane the Brown says, expect and encourage questions. Email is so popular because it's a fast, two-way communication medium. Your ability to use it to give individual people the individualized information and attention they need is a strength of this way of communicating. Focus your energy on communicating in a way that is brief and does the most good for the most recipients.
posted by BrashTech at 10:48 AM on January 19, 2021 [3 favorites]

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