12 Tips To How To Ask Good Questions – The Power of Asking Questions

Spread the love

Want to improve your conversational game? Dive into the world of how to ask good questions. Unearth essential tips and techniques to become a master questioner and elevate your communication skills. Start asking the right questions today!

In organizations, asking questions holds a remarkable power. It serves as a catalyst for learning, fostering the exchange of ideas, fueling innovation, and enhancing performance. It plays a pivotal role in building rapport and trust among team members while also serving as a shield against unforeseen business risks and pitfalls.

Astonishingly, though, only a few executives recognize questioning as a skill that can be cultivated. They often overlook how their responses to questions can significantly enhance the productivity of conversations.

This oversight represents a missed opportunity. Fortunately, by engaging in questioning, we naturally enhance our emotional intelligence, creating a positive feedback loop that transforms us into better questioners.

Drawing on insights from behavioral science research, the authors delve into how the manner in which we pose questions and respond to our counterparts can sway the outcomes of our conversations. They provide guidance on selecting the most appropriate types of questions, setting the right tone, arranging their sequence, and framing them effectively.

They emphasize the importance of determining what and how much information to share to maximize the benefits of our interactions, not just for ourselves but also for the betterment of our organizations.


12 Tips To How To Ask Good Questions

Asking good questions is a fundamental skill in effective communication. To master it, begin by actively listening to the other person, allowing them to express themselves fully before responding. 

Frame your questions to be open-ended and specific, avoiding yes-or-no queries whenever possible. Cultivate curiosity and show genuine interest in the topic.

Consider the timing and context of your questions to ensure they are relevant. By practicing these techniques, you’ll learn how to ask good questions that facilitate meaningful conversations and deepen your understanding of others. So, don’t hesitate to start sharpening your how to ask good questions skills today!

Here are 12 tips to ask good questions:

  1. Much of An Executive’s Workday is Spent
  2. Don’t Ask, Don’t Get
  3. The New Socratic Method
  4. Conversational Goals Matter
  5. Favor Follow-up Questions
  6. Know When to Keep Questions Open-Ended
  7. Get the Sequence Right
  8. Use the Right Tone
  9. Pay Attention to Group Dynamics
  10. The Best Response
  11. Deciding What to Share
  12. Deciding What to Keep Private

How to ask good questions:

1. Much of An Executive’s Workday is Spent

A significant portion of an executive’s day is dedicated to seeking information, whether it’s requesting updates from a team leader or engaging in intense negotiations with counterparts.

Surprisingly, unlike professionals like lawyers, journalists, or doctors who are trained in the art of asking questions, few executives view questioning as a skill worth honing. They often overlook how their responses to questions can enhance the quality of conversations.

This perspective represents a missed opportunity. Questioning is a potent tool for unlocking value within organizations. It stimulates learning, fosters idea exchange, fuels innovation, and improves performance. It fosters trust and rapport among team members while also serving as a risk mitigation strategy by uncovering unforeseen challenges.

While some individuals have a natural knack for questioning due to their curiosity, emotional intelligence, and ability to gauge people, most of us could benefit from asking more and better questions. The encouraging news is that by asking questions, we naturally enhance our emotional intelligence, creating a positive cycle that makes us better at asking questions in the future.

In this article, we delve into insights from behavioral science research to explore how the way we formulate questions and respond to others can significantly impact the outcomes of our conversations. We provide guidance on selecting the best type, tone, sequence, and framing of questions, along with insights into determining what and how much information to share.

These strategies are designed to help us maximize the benefits of our interactions, not only for ourselves but also for the betterment of our organizations.

2. Don’t Ask, Don’t Get

Dale Carnegie’s timeless advice from his 1936 classic, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” still resonates today: “Be a good listener and ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.” Despite this sage counsel, many of us fail to heed it.

When I (Alison) embarked on my research into conversations at Harvard Business School, one crucial insight quickly emerged: people simply don’t ask enough questions. After various types of discussions, whether it’s an interview, a first date, or a work meeting, a common lament often surfaces: “I wish they had asked me more questions” or “I can’t believe they didn’t ask me any questions.”

So, why do so many of us hold back from asking more questions? There are several reasons. Some may lean toward egocentrism, wanting to impress others with their own thoughts and ideas, neglecting to inquire. Others might exhibit apathy, either lacking interest or anticipating boredom in the responses they’d receive.

Overconfidence in one’s own knowledge can also hinder questioning, with people assuming they already know the answers, though that’s often not the case. Lastly, there’s the fear of asking the wrong question and appearing rude or incompetent.

But in our view, the primary inhibitor is that most people don’t fully comprehend the immense benefits of effective questioning. If they did, they’d punctuate fewer sentences with a period and more with a question mark.

Research dating back to the 1970s suggests that conversations serve two primary goals: information exchange (learning) and impression management (liking). Recent studies have revealed that asking questions accomplishes both. 

In research conducted by me and my Harvard colleagues, we examined numerous natural conversations, whether online chats or in-person speed dates, among participants getting to know each other.

Some were instructed to ask many questions (at least nine in 15 minutes), while others were limited to asking very few (no more than four in 15 minutes). In online chats, those who asked many questions were not only better liked by their conversation partners but also gained deeper insights into their partners’ interests.

Similarly, in speed dating scenarios, individuals who asked more questions were more likely to secure second dates. In fact, asking just one additional question on each date resulted in convincing one more person to go out again, based on a study involving 20 dates.

Questions wield such power that they can be remarkably effective in situations where asking them goes against social norms.

For example, conventional wisdom dictates that job candidates should respond to questions during interviews, but research by Dan Cable and Virginia Kay suggests that most candidates tend to excessively self-promote in interviews, neglecting to ask questions about the interviewer, the organization, or the role itself.

However, candidates who do ask questions like “What am I not asking you that I should?” not only convey competence but also build rapport and gain valuable insights about the position.

Most people underestimate how asking a multitude of questions enhances learning and strengthens interpersonal connections. In my studies, even though participants could accurately recall the number of questions asked in their conversations, they didn’t intuitively grasp the connection between question asking and likability.

Across four separate studies, involving participants in conversations or reading transcripts of others’ discussions, the influence of question asking on the level of camaraderie between conversationalists often went unnoticed.

3. The New Socratic Method

Becoming a more skilled questioner begins with the simple act of asking more questions. However, it’s important to understand that the quality of a conversation isn’t solely determined by the quantity of questions asked; factors like the type of questions, their tone, sequence, and how they’re framed also play a crucial role.

In our teaching at Harvard Business School, we conduct an exercise where we pair up students for a conversation. Some are instructed to ask as few questions as possible, while others are encouraged to ask as many as they can.

Interestingly, in pairs where both students ask very few questions, the experience often resembles children engaged in parallel play – they exchange statements but struggle to create an engaging and productive dialogue. On the other hand, pairs where both ask an excessive number of questions may find themselves in an awkward, stilted interaction.

However, in pairs where one participant asks more questions and the other responds, the experience can vary widely. Sometimes, the questioner gains valuable insights into their partner, the answerer feels listened to, and both feel a deeper connection.

In other instances, one participant might feel uncomfortable or unsure about how much to reveal, turning the conversation into something resembling an interrogation.

Our research indicates that there are various approaches to enhance the effectiveness of questions, and the best approach depends on the goals of the conversation.

Specifically, it hinges on whether the discussion is cooperative, such as when two people aim to build a relationship or accomplish a task together, or competitive, when parties seek to extract sensitive information or serve their own interests. Sometimes, it’s a mix of both, and understanding the context is key.

4. Conversational Goals Matter

Conversations can vary widely, falling somewhere on a spectrum from entirely competitive to completely cooperative. For instance, discussions revolving around the distribution of limited resources often lean toward competitiveness.

On the other hand, interactions between friends and colleagues usually fall into the cooperative category. Then there are those conversations, like managers’ check-ins with employees, that blend elements of both cooperation and competition. They’re supportive while also involving feedback and the communication of expectations.

As we navigate these diverse conversational landscapes, several challenges tend to crop up when asking and answering questions. Here are some common obstacles along with strategies for effectively dealing with them.

5. Favor Follow-up Questions

Questions come in various flavors, and not all are equal in their impact. Through Alison’s research, which combines human coding and machine learning, four distinct question types have emerged: introductory questions (like “How are you?”), mirror questions (the classic “I’m fine.

How are you?”), full-switch questions (ones that pivot to entirely different topics), and follow-up questions (which seek more information or clarification). While each type has its place in natural conversations, follow-up questions possess a unique power.

They serve as a signal to your conversation partner that you’re actively listening, genuinely care, and want to delve deeper into the subject. Interacting with someone who poses numerous follow-up questions often leads to feelings of respect and being heard.

One surprising advantage of follow-up questions is that they typically don’t demand extensive thought or preparation. In Alison’s studies, those instructed to ask more questions naturally gravitated toward using more follow-up questions than any other type, even when not explicitly told to do so.

6. Know When to Keep Questions Open-Ended

Nobody enjoys feeling like they’re being interrogated, and certain types of questions can back people into a yes-or-no corner. Open-ended questions serve as an antidote to this situation, making them particularly valuable for unearthing information and facilitating learning.

They often lead to innovation, as they can reveal hidden and unexpected answers that no one has considered before.

Extensive research in survey design has underscored the perils of limiting respondents’ choices. Closed questions, for instance, can introduce bias and manipulation. In one study, parents were asked what they believed to be “the most important thing for children to prepare them in life” from a list of response options.

Surprisingly, about 60% of them chose “to think for themselves.” However, when the same question was presented in an open-ended format, merely about 5% of parents spontaneously came up with a similar answer.

However, it’s worth noting that open-ended questions aren’t always the best choice. In situations like tense negotiations or dealing with individuals who tend to be secretive, open-ended questions can leave too much room for evasion or omission.

In these cases, closed questions can be more effective, especially when framed correctly. For instance, research by Julia Minson, Eric VanEpps from the University of Utah, Jeremy Yip from Georgetown, and Maurice Schweitzer from Wharton suggests that people are less likely to be deceptive if questioners make pessimistic assumptions (e.g., “This business will need some new equipment soon, correct?”) rather than optimistic ones (e.g., “The equipment is in good working order, right?”).

7. Get the Sequence Right

In certain situations, the information you’re seeking might be so sensitive that direct questions, no matter how carefully phrased, won’t yield the desired results. In such cases, there’s a survey strategy that can be a helpful tool for discovery.

In research conducted by Leslie in collaboration with Alessandro Acquisti and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University, it was discovered that people tended to be more open when requests for sensitive information were embedded within another task. In their study, participants were asked to rate the ethicality of antisocial behaviors like cheating on taxes or allowing a drunk friend to drive home.

They used one scale if they had engaged in a particular behavior and another scale if they hadn’t. This approach revealed which antisocial acts they themselves had been involved in.

While this tactic can occasionally prove useful, especially at an organizational level where managers might employ surveys instead of direct inquiries about sensitive topics like salary expectations, we advise using it judiciously.

If individuals sense that you’re attempting to deceive them into disclosing something, it may erode their trust in you. This, in turn, could diminish their willingness to share information in the future and potentially harm workplace relationships.

The order in which you ask your questions should be tailored to the specific situation. In tense conversations, it can be surprisingly effective to kick things off with the tough questions, even if it initially feels socially awkward.

Leslie and her colleagues discovered that people tend to be more willing to share sensitive information when questions are posed in a decreasing order of intrusiveness.

Starting with a highly sensitive question, like “Have you ever had a fantasy of doing something terrible to someone?” can paradoxically make subsequent questions, such as “Have you ever called in sick to work when you were perfectly healthy?” feel less invasive by comparison. This tends to encourage more openness.

However, it’s a fine line to walk because if the first question is excessively sensitive, it could risk offending your conversation partner.

Conversely, if your objective is to foster relationships, it’s often more effective to begin with less sensitive questions and gradually escalate to deeper ones. A classic set of studies led by psychologist Arthur Aron exemplified this approach.

In these studies, strangers were paired up and given a list of questions to work through, starting with light topics and moving towards more personal ones, such as “What is your biggest regret?”

Interestingly, these structured interactions led to greater liking between participants compared to those in a control group who simply engaged in conversation without a predetermined structure. This approach is so effective that it’s even formalized as a technique called “the relationship closeness induction,” used by researchers to cultivate a sense of connection among study participants.

Skilled conversationalists understand that the questions asked earlier in a conversation can influence the nature of subsequent queries. For instance, research by Norbert Schwarz and his colleagues at the University of Southern California revealed that the order of questions matters.

When the question “How satisfied are you with your life?” is followed by “How satisfied are you with your marriage?” respondents tend to give highly correlated answers. In this order, people implicitly assume that life satisfaction should be closely linked to marital satisfaction.

However, when the same questions are reversed, the answers are less closely correlated. This highlights how the sequence of questions can shape our perceptions and responses in a conversation.

8. Use the Right Tone

People tend to be more open and willing to share when you ask questions in a relaxed and casual manner, as opposed to adopting a formal or buttoned-up tone. In one of Leslie’s studies, participants were presented with a series of sensitive questions in an online survey.

For some, the website’s user interface had a fun and laid-back appearance, while for others, it looked formal and official. (A control group saw a neutral-looking site.) Surprisingly, participants were approximately twice as likely to disclose sensitive information when the website had a casual appearance compared to the others.

Offering an “out” or an escape route in a conversation tends to encourage people to be more forthcoming. For instance, when they’re informed that they can change their answers at any point, they tend to be more open, even though they rarely end up making changes.

This insight sheds light on why brainstorming sessions within teams and groups are often so productive. In a whiteboard setting, where ideas can be erased and judgment is momentarily set aside, people are more inclined to respond honestly and express thoughts they might otherwise keep to themselves.

Of course, there are situations where a more formal approach is necessary, but as a general rule, an overly formal tone is likely to deter people from sharing information willingly.

9. Pay Attention to Group Dynamics

The dynamics of conversation can undergo significant shifts depending on whether you’re engaging in a one-on-one chat or participating in a group discussion. It’s not just a matter of individuals’ willingness to answer questions being influenced by the presence of others; group members often tend to mirror each other’s behavior.

In a series of studies, Leslie and her colleagues presented participants with a range of sensitive questions, spanning topics like finances (“Have you ever bounced a check?”) and sensitive subjects like sex (“While an adult, have you ever felt sexual desire for a minor?”).

Participants were informed either that most others in the study were open about revealing stigmatizing answers or that they were hesitant to do so. Interestingly, those told that others had been forthcoming were 27% more likely to share sensitive answers compared to those who believed others were more reserved.

This phenomenon holds true in meetings or group settings, where just a few individuals choosing not to open up can diminish the effectiveness of questions. Conversely, when one person starts to open up, it often encourages the rest of the group to follow suit.

Group dynamics can also influence how question askers are perceived. Alison’s research reveals that in a conversation, participants generally enjoy being asked questions and tend to develop a preference for the individuals posing those questions over those providing answers.

However, when third-party observers watch the same conversation unfold, they often favor the person who is answering questions. This preference makes sense because individuals who primarily ask questions tend to reveal very little about themselves or their thoughts.

To those listening to the conversation, question askers may come across as defensive, evasive, or even invisible, while those who respond to questions appear more captivating, engaged, or memorable.

10. The Best Response

A conversation is like a dance, a delicate balance of give and take, where partners must be in sync. Just as the way we ask questions can foster trust and the exchange of information, the way we answer them also plays a crucial role.

Answering questions involves a conscious choice about where to position ourselves on the spectrum between privacy and transparency. Should we respond to the question at all? If we choose to answer, how much should we reveal? 

What do we do when faced with a question that, if answered truthfully, might expose a less-than-flattering fact or put us in a strategically disadvantaged position?

At either end of this spectrum—being completely opaque or entirely transparent—there are advantages and drawbacks. Keeping information private can provide a sense of freedom to experiment and learn.

In negotiations, withholding sensitive information, like having weak alternatives, can help secure better outcomes. However, transparency is crucial for building meaningful connections. Even in a negotiation, it can lead to mutually beneficial deals.

By sharing information, participants can identify aspects that are relatively unimportant to one party but significant to the other—a foundation for a win-win outcome.

Yet, holding onto secrets has its costs. Research by Julie Lane and Daniel Wegner at the University of Virginia suggests that concealing secrets during social interactions leads to intrusive thoughts about those secrets.

Meanwhile, research by Columbia’s Michael Slepian, Jinseok Chun, and Malia Mason shows that keeping secrets, even outside of social interactions, depletes our cognitive abilities, interferes with concentration and memory, and can even harm long-term health and well-being.

In organizational settings, people often lean toward privacy and underestimate the advantages of transparency. It’s only after a colleague has moved on to a new company that we realize we could have formed a deeper bond. Often, better solutions come to light after contracts are signed, tensions have eased, and negotiators start sharing more openly.

To make the most of answering questions and minimize potential risks, it’s crucial to decide before a conversation begins what information you’re willing to share and what you prefer to keep private. This proactive approach can lead to more productive and meaningful interactions.

11. Deciding What to Share

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all rule for how much or what type of information you should share in a conversation. In fact, transparency is such a potent tool for building connections that sometimes, the specific content of what’s revealed matters less.

Surprisingly, even information that doesn’t cast us in the best light can bring us closer to our conversation partners. In a study conducted by Leslie, along with HBS colleagues Kate Barasz and Michael Norton, they discovered a common misconception. 

Many people assume that it’s less damaging to dodge a question that might expose negative information, like “Have you ever been reprimanded at work?” rather than answering affirmatively.

However, this intuition often leads us astray. When individuals were asked to take on the perspective of a recruiter and choose between two candidates (identical except for how they responded to this question), nearly 90% preferred the candidate who chose to be upfront and answered the question honestly.

So, before you engage in a conversation, it’s worth carefully considering whether refusing to answer challenging questions might actually do more harm than good. Being candid, even about imperfections, can often be a powerful tool for building trust and fostering connections.

12. Deciding What to Keep Private

There are times when it’s in your and your organization’s best interest to play your cards close to the chest. In our negotiation classes, we teach strategies for handling tough questions without resorting to lies.

Dodging a question or responding with an answer to a question you wish you had been asked can be effective. It not only helps you protect sensitive information but also contributes to building a positive rapport with your conversational partner, especially if you can do it eloquently.

In a study led by Todd Rogers at Harvard’s Kennedy School, participants watched clips of political candidates responding to questions either by answering them directly or by skillfully dodging them. Surprisingly, eloquent dodgers were more likable than ineloquent answerers, but only when their dodges went unnoticed.

Another useful strategy is deflection, where you answer a probing question with another question or a clever joke. This approach allows answerers to steer the conversation in a different direction.

“Question everything,” as famously stated by Albert Einstein. Personal creativity and organizational innovation hinge on the willingness to seek out new information. Questions and thoughtful responses not only make interactions smoother and more effective but also strengthen trust and rapport while guiding groups toward discoveries.

Our research has thoroughly documented all these benefits. Yet, we believe that questions and answers possess a power that transcends performance-related matters. The source of all questions lies in wonder, curiosity, and a capacity for delight.

We ask and answer questions with the belief that the alchemy of conversation will create something greater than the sum of its parts. To maintain enduring personal engagement and motivation, both in our personal lives and at work, we must always appreciate the transformative joy of asking and answering questions.

Final Thoughts

Mastering the art of asking good questions is a skill that can significantly enhance our personal and professional lives. Learning how to ask good questions is about more than just information gathering; it’s a pathway to building trust, fostering innovation, and strengthening relationships.

Throughout this exploration of how to ask good questions, we’ve uncovered the value of being genuinely curious, striking the right balance between privacy and transparency, and understanding the nuances of timing and context in our inquiries.

Asking good questions isn’t just about finding answers; it’s about unlocking the transformative power of conversation.

So, if you’re wondering how to ask good questions, remember that it begins with a sense of wonder and curiosity. Embrace the joy of asking and answering questions, and you’ll discover that the journey of inquiry can lead to a destination filled with growth, connection, and understanding.

Leave a Comment