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How to Get Better At Asking Questions

Updated on December 27, 2019Writing Tips

The ability to ask the right question is more than half the battle of finding the answer. -Thomas J. Watson

As you advance in your career, curiosity tends to take a backseat. This isn’t anyone’s fault; it’s merely the way to ensure all of your daily tasks are completed on time.

In the workplace, knowledge and facts are favored―particularly when they’re flavored by past evidence of success. Oftentimes, your higher-ups are more likely to insist on correct answers than to prompt you with thought-provoking questions.

One study by the Harvard Business Review exposed a startling truth about the nature of inquisitiveness: on average, children ask 300 questions a day; by middle school, this number decreases to practically none. Once we reach adulthood, it’s typical for our disposition toward questioning to range from “the timid to the hostile.”

This doesn’t have to be the case at your place of work—be it an office or among a remote team.

Even though certainty may seem to rule the workplace roost, knowing how to ask good questions can ease the frustration that usually stems from posing unbridled, purposeless queries.

Developing the ability to ask pointed, powerful questions is indeed a learned skill, but with these 7 tricks, you can stew the secret sauce to finding the answers that you seek.

1. Start with the positives

If you are asking a colleague for something—like an explanation of the database they created—they may take a defensive stance if you don’t frame the question with positive affirmations. Instead, try complimenting their project first: “Karla, this database looks fantastic. Could you explain this one section to me in more detail?” This way, you will set yourself up for the answer you want instead of receiving kickback.

2. Define your purpose straightaway

Before you wander over to your coworker’s desk and interrupt the eBook they’re writing, make sure you fully understand the purpose of your question. If their response is “Why?” or “How come?”, you should be able to quickly and painlessly explain the reasons behind your asking.

3. Know when to ask a “yes or no” question

Sometimes, you may only need to ask a simple “yes or no” question to gather the information you need. Other times, you may need to pose an open-ended question, such as “Why did the client return this pamphlet we created?”, to really unearth the meat of the matter. Either way, you can avoid receiving incomplete information if you know exactly what you want from your inquiry.

4. Dig a little deeper

It’s wise to keep a few follow-up questions in your back pocket. Even if you’re looking for a simple, factual response, digging in a little deeper can lead to the real truth. Some examples include:

  • What do you mean?
  • What makes you say that?
  • Why do you think that?

5. Speak their language

There’s a zero percent chance you will gather the information you need from the office intern if you approach them with a mess of high-level, industry jargon. Rather than confusing your listener with phrases and words they don’t understand, make an effort to speak their language. If they still look confused, you probably haven’t tapped into their frame of reference. Try rephrasing the question in a way that speaks to their experience and knowledge base.

6. Maintain your neutrality

In the same manner that framing your questions with positive affirmations will prompt a more useful response, it’s equally sensible to maintain a neutral standpoint. What this means is learning to ask a question without any of your opinion tainting the response. Instead of asking, “What did you make of that ridiculously long conference call?”, simply pare your query down to: “What did you make of the call?” This way, your listener can offer their honest insight without you influencing the information.

7. Refrain from interrupting

The only thing more irritating than being asked a hundred questions about a project at work is being interrupted every time you try to answer them. If you ask a question, you need the person on the other end to know you care about—and truly value—their response. Otherwise, they may not be as willing to respond to your next question if you’re branded as an interrupter.

Knowing how to ask questions at work can propel you forward in making professional leaps and bounds—so long as you frame them in a manner that provokes the direct response you need.

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