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How to Ask Good Questions: A Guide to Better Conversations

Thursday, May 04, 2023

Throughout our classroom education, we all typically taught that to answer questions with a correct answer represents high intelligence. Getting questions “right” on a test or exam is often seen as a measure of intellect. So it’s no surprise that most of us believe that knowing answers is more important than asking questions.

In any conversation, asking great questions facilitates more learning, discovery and meaningful contributions. If you can hone this skill, you’ll be a person who others want to engage in conversation with, and you’ll broaden your knowledge through great conversation.

What constitutes a good question?

The essence of a good question is that it is a query with an intention to seek out novel information towards a particular objective. Different questions have different objectives. Examples of objectives are: to coordinate action within a team, to lead a discovery, to complete a project or just to satisfy personal curiosity about a topic.

Asking Good Questions Is A Superpower

If knowledge is power, asking questions is a superpower. Learning to ask good questions is a skill that requires thought and practice. If you’ve ever found that there are things you’d like to know about a person or a topic, but you're not sure exactly how to get the right information, then it would benefit you to build this skill.

In this article, you will discover 3 strategies to asking great questions. Asking great questions truly is a superpower because it is the best way to help you become a better conversationalist and relate to people and the world around you.

1. Approach With Genuine Curiosity

Since asking questions unlocks learning, aim to build a map of your knowledge. One way to do this is to create a mind map or another written representation of your expertise. Visually map out the depth of all your knowledge in various domains where you have experience. It’s at this point you begin to realize what you don’t know. The more we discover facts and data about the world around us, the more we uncover our knowledge gaps.

With this conscious awareness of realizing what you don’t know, you begin to approach things with genuine curiosity. Here you can begin to ask yourself:

  • ​What do I wish to know?
  • How can I close some of the knowledge gaps I have uncovered?

These questions will lead you to topics and events you may want to know more about, and from there you can begin to formulate questions to satisfy your curiosity.

2. Analyze the Conversational Goal

In any conversation, there is a spectrum of conversational goals that ranges from altruism to narcissism. We are either giving away or taking knowledge in some form every time we have a conversation.

On the altruistic end of the conversational goal spectrum we want to give away knowledge, cooperate with another person or accomplish something meaningful together. On the narcissistic end of the spectrum, we wish to gain some knowledge to serve our own goals.

These opposing goals in conversation require different strategies to formulate powerful questions.

If the conversational goal tends toward altruism, start with the least sensitive questions for building rapport. Pose questions that are open-ended with the purpose of inviting people to think and respond as themselves. Even if the information you are seeking might be sensitive, you can begin with more general questions.

For example, a sensitive question could be: “Have you ever thought about sabotaging your co-worker’s projects?”

That topic may cause the listener to hesitate, since the information may reveal their own personal negative intent. Questions like this are best asked after you’ve built rapport through more general questions. A less sensitive question might be: “Have you ever felt your project was underappreciated?”

On the other end of the question spectrum are questions with a narcissistic goal. These questions are more competitive than cooperative, and the intent is to gain knowledge for your own purposes.

Questions that are directly competitive may push people to dodge the question or give a roundabout answer. To get the answers you’re seeking in this kind of exchange, try asking more direct closed-loop questions that tend toward short, yes or no answers. If your questions are closed-ended, you are more likely to get a precise reply.

Another smart strategy when the conversational goal is on the narcissistic end of the spectrum is to position your questions from a reverse psychology experiment. In a reverse psychology framework, ask a question that assumes a negative outcome. For example, a question to ask in this context would be: “This probably isn't that important to you right now is it?”; or, “With the new policies coming in, your teams will be at capacity and you may need new hires soon, is that right?”

When you ask questions assuming the response may be negative, the respondent tends to be more giving in their answer. They may volunteer more information, because you’ve positioned the question as if you have insight into the response, so they may be willing to counter your expectation with a revealing explanation.

3. Avoid the Interrogation Experience

No matter what direction you’re coming from on the question spectrum, avoid giving people the “interrogation experience.”

The best way to avoid creating this discomfort in a conversation is to be aware of the cadence of your questions. Avoid timing questions in a rapid-fire way. Time your questions to allow for thought, responses, and pauses to make the other person feel at ease.

Another helpful point to avoid an interrogation experience is to be aware of the continuity of your questions. Don’t skip through a range of questions that have no relation to each other. If there is no perceivable continuity with your follow-up questions, it could feel like an interrogation.

Do your questions follow in an order that connects each question? Your questions should feel like a fair exchange is going on, and that means taking a queue from the person’s answer to lead you to the next question.

Finally, thinking about your tone and casualness can help people feel comfortable to answer questions honestly. Your tone and vocabulary influences whether someone feels they are being interrogated. The casualness of your manner and your words will put people at ease to open up.

One way to keep it casual is to remind people that they can change their answer, or give them an “out” so they don’t feel tied to answer something a certain way. This helps people feel that the conversation is a friendly exchange, instead of a direct interrogation.

These are the three important keys to asking better questions, which will lead you to more meaningful conversations. Practice these in your next conversation with friends, or your next meeting at work. Put thought into where you want to gain new information, then keep these points in mind as you hone your ability to engage in a more meaningful way with others.

Now it is time to move away from the knowledge-gathering stage and move on to the application. If you’d love to learn how to put the principles covered in this blog into action, join me in my executive coaching program where I’ll introduce you to a powerful self- and career-development process.

This is an implementation-to-results program for growth-oriented executives who seek greater career fulfillment through becoming a more skilled version of themselves. It is designed to help you master your mind, develop deeper insights, elevate your communication skills, and become inspired in your career growth.

If you’d love to find out how my methodology can help you with your career goals, apply HEREfor an opportunity to work with me.

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© Mastery Insights Inc. All Rights Reserved