How to ask better questions

The quality of the answers we receive is based on the quality of questions we ask. Asking questions is embedded in every aspect of our life: finding something on the internet; asking a co-worker where to find a file; or discussing someone’s work for an interview. We enjoy asking questions because it allows us to learn more about the world; questions help us unlock the wisdom held by other people. However, we often focus more on answers than questions. Humans care more about getting a quick answer than asking the right question. Yet the best way to get a good answer is to ask a good question.

Asking good questions help you develop a firmer understanding of our world, and what you are working on. Questions allow you to learn new things. And humans naturally want to understand new things. Thus, asking questions comes naturally to us. But oftentimes our questions are not efficient, and result in poor-quality answers. We may ask a question that is too vague or ambiguous because we are focusing more on the answer than how to articulate our questions. I know a lot of people who have so much knowledge to share, and I have tried my best to ask better questions because I they have so much to share. If we only have someone’s attention for a few minutes or hours, we should do our best to ask questions that will help us get the best answers.

How do you ask better questions?

There is no one way in which you can ask better questions. The techniques that will work best will depend on who you are talking to, what environment you are talking in, among other factors. That said, there are a few good ways in which you can ask better questions.

1. Follow your curiosity.

Ask someone a question about something you find interesting. Often people ask basic questions which are designed to keep the conversation going, but there is no logical path of progression for those questions. Follow your own curiosity and base your questions on what you find interesting about the other person. If the other person has made an interesting point, follow-up and ask them to elaborate. Following your curiosity will ensure you are fully engaged in the conversation because you are legitimately interested in the answers.

2. Interrupt if you need to.

Sometimes a discussion becomes less interesting and the other person goes on a tangent which does not answer your question. If you feel as if the conversation is getting off-track — or as if you want some clarification on a point — then you should feel free to interrupt the other person. Asking for clarification or for the other person to get back on track is better than letting the conversation go down a road where you are no longer following what the other person is saying. And, if you are asking questions in front of other people — at a panel, in a group discussion, et cetera — they will likely feel bored if you are too. Take responsibility over a line of questioning and interrupt only when you think it is appropriate.

3. Listen to the other person.

You cannot ask good questions without knowing what the other person has to say. Before you ask a detailed question, get to know the other person better. Ask them a few basic questions about who they are, what they are passionate about, and how they got to where they are today. These questions may seem mundane, but they will help you build the context you need to ask better questions. The more you know about the other person, the better quality questions you will be able to ask them. And the other person will be appreciative if you ask personalized questions based on something they have said — they will know you have listened and that you are fully invested in the discussion.

4. Ask questions with purpose.

There should always be a point to the question you are asking. Before you pitch someone with a question, think about what value you will derive from that question. Does it answer a burning question in your mind? Does it add value to the discussion? Will it help you learn more about how the other person thinks? If you ask questions just to keep the conversation going, the other party will likely pick up on that tone and feel uncomfortable. But when you have a purpose, it is easier to stay engaged and to keep the conversation flowing.

5. Preface difficult questions.

Asking difficult questions is not an inherently bad thing — there can be a lot of wisdom gained by asking difficult questions. The arbitrage opportunity is even bigger if other people have avoided asking the question on account of it being uncomfortable. This does not mean you should ask questions that will provoke the other person or make them feel bad. Rather, it means you should not be afraid to ask tough questions if there is a real purpose to them.

In this situation, you should preface difficult questions. Start your question with “I have heard a few people saying,” which helps make your question sound like many people are seeking an answer. Another way you could preface a difficult question would be to start with praise, then ask your difficult question. Doing so will help the other person feel comfortable in the fact you still agree with them, and sets a good tone for the conversation. Or you can tell the other person that you want to play devil’s advocate for a moment. This allows you to scrutinize an answer or get another perspective from someone without sounding disrespectful.

Asking questions is a great way to acquire knowledge. What we have experienced accounts for a minute part of the human experience. And the same goes with others. However, if we combine what we have experienced in our lives with the thoughts of others, we can develop a broader sense of life and our world. Asking questions is not enough, though — you need to be good at asking good questions. Asking good questions will help keep your conversation productive, and will also make the other person feel as if their insights are valued. You will be able to access more of their wisdom, and learn more about the world in the process.

Blog, EssayJames Gallagher