7 ways to ask questions without making me angry

You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…

You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.....
by a4gpa via Flickr

Over the years, I’ve reached out to a lot of people for project management advice. I messed up quite a few times too, by doing it in such a way that turned them off, didn’t engage them, etc.

Now, I receive many requests for specific advice or general guidance, especially when it comes to getting started in project management.  Now I’m a teddy bear (I don’t actually turn green when I get angry) and am very accommodating, to a fault.  Still, I want to be sure that everyone who needs help can get it by knowing how to ask correctly and build a healthy relationship in the process.

Recently I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts on general management, Manager Tools. They had a great episode on “how to ask for advice” that I’m riffing on here, adding some points of my own. Those guys and I disagree on very little when it comes to managing people. The topic resonated with me looking back on when I’ve asked for help from others, and I can see the points here (good and bad examples) in the email I receive too. The better you understand HOW to ask for help, the more success you’ll see.

Take these points to heart.  Put yourself into the shoes of the person you are communicating with…ALWAYS.  Empathy is one of the hallmarks of a great project manager, fantastic communicator, and awesome person.  Do this stuff!

No one owes you anything

This is a big one to remember. When you display humility and gratitude for the other person’s time and expertise IN ADVANCE you are much more likely to get a thoughtful response. Even if you we well-intentioned, email can especially come across as demanding and with some expectation of a response. Many busy people will be instantly turned off by this, and ignore or avoid you in the future.

Plus, be sure you understand that not everyone DOES have the time to answer all the email they get. If you don’t get a response right away, it’s possible that they will get back to you, just not immediately. Do not have the image in your head that this person is sitting in front of their email inbox waiting for a message from you.

This post is not a soapbox for me to complain about my lot in life, but I do want to make sure you are clear on these points so you will receive good results with me or anyone in the future who you might want to ask project management advice of.

That said, one of the things I don’t like about answering all the email I get is when someone is treating me as if they are my boss and I owe them an immediate response. There have been several occasions where I have received a second email from someone I don’t know within 24 hours asking “why didn’t you respond to me yet?” Because I’m a nice guy, I still respond to these emails as best I can, but it makes me feel like you’re taking advantage of my availability and willingness to help.

Be open-minded

When you get an answer, accept it. You can ask clarifying questions or other follow-up questions, but don’t argue with the advice. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes for a moment. Someone comes to you, asks for project management advice, you give them your opinion, and then they basically tell you that you are full of it.

Relationship building FAIL. Plus you probably didn’t learn jack squat.

Ask the question up front

This is important. The relevant history and background information needs to be there, but let them know what you are looking for advice on right away. I can’t remember how many times I had to re-read an entire email because I had no idea what the question was in the first place. As manager tools puts it, BLUF (“bottom line up front”).

Say thank you!

Someone has just taken their time and energy away from activities that benefit them or their organizations and set it aside for you. 1) BE thankful and then 2) express that gratitude for their awesome willingness to help!

I’ve always been blown away by most peoples’ willingness to help out complete strangers, even people who are very, very busy. I DIDN’T always make a point of thanking them though. Oh sure, I probably did the obligatory “thank you!” at the end of an email. But I’m talking about writing at least a sentence or two about how you recognize their time is valuable and let them know how much you appreciate what they’ve done for you.

On my soap box again for a minute, I do respond to a lot of email where I might spend up to 30 minutes reading a long email, thinking deeply about someone’s situation, type up a thoughtful response, only to never hear from them again. On the other hand, when I receive a nice thank you message, it lets me know my time was well-spent and my goal of helping someone was achieved.

Ask one question at a time

Even your mentor is just a regular person. Humans act more consistently and provide better results when tasked with one thing at a time. Focus is key for quality and output. So, don’t bog down your project management mentor with a barrage of questions. They may look at the long list and defer it, defer it, defer it until they’ve forgotten to answer it. Or they may decide they can’t spare the 3 hours it’s going to take to answer this email.

The best email I get asking for project management advice or career insight has a single question, up front right after a small introductory message, and then provides supporting background and detail that might be necessary for me to answer the question.

Ask a thoughtful question

Concise writing that still relays the intended message is hard. Short, sweet, and to the point is the way to go. Make sure you provide enough background and other information to allow them to answer your question. Do a Google search ahead of time, don’t ask questions that are easy to find and obvious. The best questions are those that tap into the mentor’s experience in some way that engages them, or is based on variables in your own life that just can’t be sorted out as a simple equation or yes/no answer.

Follow up

Let your mentor know how their advice helped you! People give advice because they LIKE to help you! One part of that is you letting them know how much you were helped by them, or by keeping them up to date on your progress in relation to the topic you sought help about.

In this realm, share your progress with job hunting, or something you were able to implement on a project, or perhaps a certification you completed. (This is one reason why I started PM Career Stories and PMP Stories, so I know I’m actually helping some people!)

OK, my skin is starting to turn back to it’s normal color now.  Please leave a comment, it helps keep me calm.


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