How to Ask Questions to Get the Answers You Need

Have you ever felt like you didn’t get the right answer to your question? Getting the right answers begins with asking the right questions! The trouble is, most of us are terrible at asking questions. Learning how ask questions that deliver great answers is a skill honed by great journalists. Here are their secrets.

Socrates said that asking questions helps encourage answers to come from the person asking the questions rather than relying on external answers. This is why open-ended questions are so effective as a therapeutic tool. If you’ve ever comforted a friend who is going through a difficult time, this might seem familiar: you let your friend talk things out, let her ask questions that you have no answer for, and before you know it, she has answered her own questions!

Questions are great teachers.

The brain is designed to constantly make new neural connections. This is why questions are such powerful teachers. Every time you solve a problem, you create a new neural connection; if you were simply given the answer, the neural connection wouldn’t be as strong as if you came up with the answer yourself.

The Best Way to Ask Questions

  • To encourage thoughtful, meaningful responses, begin with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “why,” or “how.”

  • If you want to encourage introspection and problem-solving, ask open-ended questions and avoid questions that begin with “do you think,” “should,” “would,” “are” or “is.” You will get a yes or no, but that’s all.

  • Don’t fish for answers (don’t answer your own questions). For example, “Where is your father, at work?” or “Why didn’t you communicate this problem to your manager, were you too shy to talk to him?” If you know the answer, why are you asking?

  • Avoid multiple choice questions. Keep the questions brief so you are more likely to get a clear answer. For example, “What’s the most effective way to organize the event?” is much better than “What’s the most effective way to organize the event, should we hire a caterer or should we make it a casual potluck, or is there someone in-house who could do it?” The second sentence rambles, and while it might be a great brainstorming technique to throw ideas out there, it’s not as effective if you actually want an answer (as opposed to a lengthy discussion).

  • If you get a rambling “life story” kind of answer, gently interrupt and ask for a simple yes or no. This applies when you ask someone to do something and they go on and on and on with a list of excuses (in an effort to not be seen as the bad guy, the uncooperative one, etc.). If all you need is a yes or no, you have to be okay with the person’s answer – so make it clear that either way, it’s okay! Honor their answer.
  • Be okay with silence. If you ask a question, give the person a chance to think about an answer! Don’t ever hurry them or put them on the spot in an effort to get an immediate answer, because they’ll be likely to blurt out something just to appease your sense of urgency – but it might not be the answer you were looking for. Give people a chance to dig into their minds for answers. Think back to the times you’ve been put on the spot and pressed for an immediate answer. It creates a lot of unnecessary stress and doesn’t foster a sense of cooperation.

  • If you get a non-answer like an evasion, a change of subject, an unclear answer, a rambling answer or a non-committal “maybe,” it’s better to approach the question from a different angle, or ask again for an definitive answer or explanation.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask “dumb” questions. It’s far better to ask questions that wound your ego a bit, than to pretend to understand and then mess up royally when it becomes apparent that you don’t.

  • Don’t nod if you don’t understand an answer. Ask a follow-up question and get it clear in your head!

  • Rephrase the answer in your own words to make sure you understand it. This is especially important if the answer if vague, or very complicated.

  • A wonderful open-ended question that encourages very deep thought is “What do you think…”

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions in a conversation. Asking additional questions will make the other person feel like they’re being listened to with care.

  • Don’t interrupt with your own opinions or ideas. Let the speaker finish.

Answering Questions

It’s important that you understand a question before you answer. If you’re being asked a question:

  • Parrot (repeat) key points to show the speaker that you heard what they said; this helps clear up any miscommunications.

  • Don’t answer yes or no, if you don’t understand a question. Don’t give an explanation about the wrong thing… ask for clarification.

  • Keep your answers short and simple. If you start rambling and telling them your life story, you’re more likely to forget the question halfway through your response!

The Worst Question

What is the worst possible question you can ask? It’s not “does this dress make me look fat?”

The worst question is the one left unasked.

Letting your ego get in the way and pretending to know something you know makes you look foolish later. Don’t worry about impressing someone by pretending to have the answers. Let them know that you are sincere and interested.

When you’re on the receiving end of questions, listen with compassion and empathy. Avoid feeling superior to someone because they have a question that might seem elementary to you. You’ll be in their shoes one day, regarding another topic.

Lastly, if you are uncomfortable asking a question, rehearse it. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and pretend you are being asked (this is especially helpful in romantic relationships or professional situations where you are more likely to be concerned about offending or hurting someone with your question.

Linah Cathy