How to Ask Good Questions
What makes a good question?
When it comes to communication, we tend to get focused on the conclusions we’re drawing, the statements we’re making, and the knowledge we’re sharing. 😉
But seeking information — in the form of asking open-ended, compelling questions — is a big piece of the puzzle.
While questions are a normal part of any conversation, figuring out how to ask them effectively isn’t always so straightforward.
Maybe you feel awkward asking lighthearted questions that keep small talk rolling. Perhaps you bite your nails when you want to ask a clarifying question about a team project, because self-doubt is telling you that you should already know the answer. Or maybe you’re eager to get insights and perspective from a subject matter expert, but you aren’t sure how to get the nuggets of wisdom you actually need.
Yep, you have questions about questions. So, let's dig into the details on not only how to ask good questions, but also how to use them as a powerful tool to transform yourself into an expert communicator.
3 reasons why asking good questions matters
Knowing how to ask good questions offers a number of advantages for improving your interpersonal and workplace communication.
1. Good questions get results.
There are tons of different types of questions, and they’re surprisingly flexible. They can be crafted to achieve specific results, including:
To diagnose a problem. (What is the biggest challenge you’re facing when...?)
To gather additional information. (Can you tell me more about…?)
To understand an outcome. (What is your goal for…?)
To evoke action. (What are your next steps?)
Pro tip: In order to achieve a desired result, you need to know exactly what your purpose is and what you’re trying to achieve. Before posing a question to somebody else, ask yourself, “Why am I asking this?” Then you can structure your question accordingly. For example, if you’re trying to understand what happens next, asking, “What’s the next step?” is far more targeted than asking, “How do we move forward?”
2. Good questions add clarity.
When your team member says something that you don’t understand, you have two options: smile and nod, or ask questions to get the answers you need. The second option is always going to be your best bet, and one of the core benefits of asking questions is to equip you with additional information and context.
Pro tip: It’s tough to admit when you don’t know or don’t understand a concept. Researchers have noted that level of intellectual humility isn’t second nature for most of us. Asking somebody to provide examples is a great way to increase clarity without having to explicitly call attention to your lack of understanding.
3. Good questions foster a real conversation.
On average, we spend 40%-60% of conversations talking about ourselves, as our self-indulgent rambling triggers the reward center in our brains. Asking questions combats our egos and helps us turn the spotlight on our conversational partners. “You’re actually communicating, not just exchanging facts,” says Dean Nelson, Ph.D., Founder and Director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University and author of Talk to Me: How to Ask Better Questions, Get Better Answers, and Interview Anyone Like a Pro.
Pro tip: Questions keep conversations moving forward. Ask questions that build upon something tangible your conversation partner has said — for example, “You mentioned you watched a documentary over the weekend. Which one?”
Asking good questions ensures mutual understanding, keeps conversations flowing, and helps you draw conclusions that you might not have landed on otherwise.
Further reading: The Surprising Power of Questions — HBR
How to ask the right questions: 5 tips for inquiring minds
There’s more to asking an effective question than tacking on a question mark, lifting your eyebrows, and raising the pitch of your voice.
Nonverbal cues like those help your question land in the right way, but the content of what you’re asking carries even more weight — especially when it comes to respecting your own and your audience’s time.
Specificity is a big piece of refining your question’s content. Good questions are both targeted and relevant. For example, if you were going to interview a product manager about a feature launch, your questions would focus on that feature:
Why is the product feature being rolled out?
What does the new feature do for customers?
What are the long-term goals and outcomes?
What will the feature contribute to the business?
Beyond staying focused, let’s cover some other ways to ask questions that actually get you the information you need.
1. Open your ears and listen.
Maybe you’ve been in this situation before: You’ve explained a concept in detail and somebody unmutes themselves on your Zoom call and asks a question that you just answered a moment before.
This communication scenario is proof that the basics of asking great questions comes back to listening — not just hearing, but listening for comprehension. You need to absorb the information that’s being shared so that your questions advance the discussion and enhance your understanding.
Unfortunately, listening is tough and retention is even harder. Researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted a series of experiments in the late 1800s that demonstrated that we forget a large percentage of what we’ve learned almost immediately — a concept he coined “the forgetting curve.” More recent studies support Ebbinghaus’ conclusions.
The more you listen to comprehend, the easier time you’ll have asking relevant and compelling questions. To improve your listening skills:
Eliminate distractions (both internal and external).
Maintain adequate eye contact.
Observe body language and other nonverbal communication cues.
Take notes about important concepts.
Pause before jumping in to confirm the other person is done speaking.
Briefly summarize what the person shared with you.
Those tips will help you stay focused so you can ask questions that build upon the topic at hand.
Related reading: How To Improve Your Emotional Intelligence at Work — The Loom Blog
2. Ask one question at a time.
Why is this task behind schedule? Is it going to push the whole project past the deadline? How did this happen? And how can we get things back on track again?
Being buried under an avalanche of questions like this is overwhelming. You don’t know where to start. And by the time you answer one of them, you’re likely to forget what the other questions even were.
This is why it’s helpful to ask one question at a time and give your conversational partner a chance to respond before moving forward. Remember, when done right, questions should build a conversation — not feel like an interrogation.
3. Avoid leading questions.
Leading questions are phrased to direct a person toward the answer you want. For example, if you were to ask your boss a leading question, you’d ask, “How well do you think I’m doing?” instead of “What do you think of my performance?” Leading questions can heavily influence responses (which is why they’re frequently objected to in court trials).
A study on the interaction between language and memory confirms the impact of leading questions. Participants were shown different clips of traffic incidents and then asked how fast they thought the vehicle was traveling. The researchers used different verbs to describe the accident that ranged from mild (“contacted”) to severe (“smashed”). The intensity of the verb choice directly correlated to the participants’ perception of speed — the more intense the verb, the faster the participants thought the car was going.
Keep in mind that “either/or” questions are another, more subtle instance of a leading question, as you’re directing the person to one of only two responses.
Instead of asking, “Should we schedule the meeting for today or push it to next Monday?”, a question like, “When is the best time for this meeting?” will get you a more honest and reliable answer.
4. Don’t disguise statements as questions.
What’s the point of asking a question? At its core, a question is about seeking information rather than making a statement. Yet it’s way too easy to glue a question mark onto the back-end of an assertion.
Here’s an example: “You’re going to have that done by the end of the day, right?”
You can easily remove the “right?” from the end of that “question,” and it reads, “You’re going to have that done by the end of the day.” It feels aggressive and accusatory — and it’s really not a question at all. If you were to truly ask a question, you’d opt for something like:
When will you have that finished?
Are we going to meet our deadline?
What’s the status of this project?
Here’s a quick test to see if your question will come off as more of a leading statement: Look at the word you’re starting with.
Do you begin with a question word like “how,” “when,” “why,” “what,” etc.? Or are you starting with “you” or “we”? It’s not a foolproof system (there are always exceptions!), but this simple exercise will help you rework your language and the form of a question so that you’re actually asking a question — and not making a statement that implies an answer, which hurts rapport (or worse, feelings). 8
For example, instead of saying, “We still have a lot of work to do to get this project in decent shape, don’t you think?”, you can ask, “What are some other ways we can improve the work we already put into this project?”
5. Keep your questions open-ended.
“One of the common mistakes is to ask a close-ended question,” explains Nelson. Close-ended questions are ones that require a “yes,” “no,” or other one-word response. For example, “Did the client like our proposal?”
In contrast, open-ended questions require longer, more specific answers, “which will draw out a more interesting response,” Nelson adds. If you changed the above question to be open-ended, you’d ask, “What did the client think about our proposal?” We asked people on Twitter to share some of their favorite open-ended questions, and those included:
How does this make you feel?
Can you tell me more about that?
What’s on your mind?
What’s your ideal outcome?
Closed questions limit the replies of your conversational partner — they’re boxed into thinking there’s a correct answer, which can lead to biased and inaccurate responses.
A poll conducted following the 2008 presidential election shows how much power open or closed questions can have. Respondents were asked the following question: “What one issue mattered most to you in deciding how you voted for president?”
This question was presented two different ways: as an open-ended question and as a close-ended question where participants were provided five options (and could add an option on their own).
In response to the open-ended question, only 35% referenced the economy as a deciding factor. But, when the economy was explicitly offered as a response, 58% of respondents chose it — proof that exactly how you phrase your questions can have a big impact on the answers you receive.
Related reading: How Smart People Ask Great Questions (and Get Better Answers) — Inc.
The art of asking follow-up questions
There’s one more type of question that deserves special attention: the follow-up question.
“Follow-up questions are crucial,” says Nelson. “It shows that you’ve been listening, and that an answer piqued your curiosity about something else.” He adds that these types of questions are what elevate you into a real conversation by helping you dig deeper into a topic before moving to the next question. Some of Nelson’s favorites include:
Can you give me an example?
I’m not sure I understand — can you explain that more?
Questions like those keep you engaged in the discussion while simultaneously pulling more information out of who you’re interacting with. “Once you’re doing that, you’re getting to the good stuff,” Nelson adds.
Asking good questions not only makes you a better, more informed conversationalist — asking the right follow-up questions correlates to being more likeable. In a study on the role of question-asking in a speed-dating situation, the data showed that the more follow-up questions a study participant asked, the more other participants liked them and were interested in second dates. Though focused on a speed-dating context, the theoretical implications of the study suggest that asking questions is a communication skill that has positive impacts on conversational behavior in general.
Any questions? 🤔
Questions are a powerful tool for increasing your understanding. But the right questions do so much more than give you greater clarity and valuable information.
Asking good questions demonstrates your interest in a topic and improves your social interactions by making you an all-around better leader, conversational partner, and effective communicator. Good questions earn you respect as someone who’s engaged in discussions and committed to getting to the bottom of things. Asking the right questions helps garner trust because you’re invested in learning and sharing the conversational spotlight.
So, shake that perception that asking questions makes you look nosy or unknowledgeable. As it turns out, questions are an impactful communication tactic to build rapport, boost your reputation, and keep conversations moving — without feeling awkward.
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Written by Kat Boogaard
Kat is a freelance writer focused on productivity, communication, and teamwork. Say hi on Twitter.