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The power of asking better questions

Richard Smith questions

Questioning is a valuable skill that can and should be honed, write Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K John for Harvard Business Review.

Do you ask enough questions? Probably not. But you could be missing a trick. Because questioning can stimulate learning and the exchange of ideas, fuel innovation, boost performance and build trust between colleagues.

We enter into conversation for two reasons: to gather information (to learn) or to make a positive impression (to be liked). Research conducted by Brooks and several of her Harvard University colleagues suggests people like being asked questions and, perhaps unsurprisingly, asking a person more questions results in the acquisition of more information about that person.

Interviewees are a prime example of a situation in which people fail to ask enough questions. Research by Dan Cable at London Business School and Virginia Kay at the University of North Carolina suggests interviewees focus so much on selling themselves they forget to ask questions that would engage the interviewer and make him or her view the interviewee in a more positive light.


Brooks and John highlight five reasons why people don’t ask enough questions:

1) Ego – you forget to ask questions because you are so wrapped up in your own fascinating conversation.

2) Apathy – you don’t care enough.

3) Lack of confidence – you are worried that you will ask a question that somebody might find offensive or stupid.

4) Ignorance – you don’t understand the power of questioning.


It is important to ask more questions. It is even more important to ask the right questions in the right manner. Here are six tips for better questioning:

1) Favour follow-up questions. There are four types of questions: introductory questions (“How are you?”), mirror questions (“Well. How are you?”), full-switch questions (questions that change the topic of conversation) and follow-up questions (questions asked to solicit more information).

Follow-up questions have a “special power”, according to Brooks and John. They show you are listening, that you care enough to want to know more. You can’t prepare follow-up questions, but if you are listening, you do care and you do want to know more, they will come naturally.

2) Know when to keep questions open-ended. Asking closed questions, i.e. questions that force a person to give a yes or no answer or restrict them to a small selection of answers (multiple choice), can feel like an interrogation or manipulation.

Open-ended questions give a person more breathing space and are likely to result in an unforced and perhaps unexpected answer and a more comfortable conversation.

It is important to ask the right kind of question for the situation. Open-ended questions are not right in a situation in which you want a straight answer to a straight question, e.g. a negotiation or an investigation.

If the information you are seeking is sensitive it might be worth using a survey, but be careful people don’t think you are trying to trick them. Trust in the workplace is important.

3) Get the sequence right. The order of your questions depends on the circumstances. If you are trying to solicit sensitive information, work your way from the toughest questions to the softest question. The softer questions will seem far less threatening following on from the tougher questions.

If you are trying to build a relationship, ask the softer questions first and work your way carefully towards tougher questions.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the questions you ask first influence the answers to later questions.

4) Use the right tone. People are more comfortable and therefore more forthcoming when questions are asked in a casual tone.

5) Consider conversational dynamics. Speaking with a group of people is very different to speaking to an individual. When it comes to answering questions in front of others, the herd mentality kicks in.

Research conducted by John suggests people are 27% more likely to reveal sensitive information if they are told others were willing to do so. If one person in a group shows a willingness to answer your questions, the others will follow suit. So consider who is the group member most likely to be forthcoming and ask him or her first.

6) Decide what to share and what not to share. It might seem obvious but a successful conversation requires at least two people. So it is important you consider not just the questions you are asking but the answers you are giving.

It is important to find a balance between privacy and transparency. What are you willing to reveal? What do you want to keep secret? “In an organisational context, people too often err on the side of privacy – and under-appreciate the benefits of transparency,” write Brooks and John.

Research by Michael Slepian, Jinseok Chun and Malia Mason at Columbia University suggests keeping secrets can have a negative impact on our cognitive processes and wellbeing. The truth can help us bond with others.

Research conducted by John suggests that when it comes to answering interview questions, 90% of interviewers prefer honesty, even if it reflects badly on the interviewee.

Some information is better kept to yourself, but it is always better to respond than to refuse or to lie. Eloquently dodging a question, for example by answering a different question in an engaging manner, or deflecting a question with a witty remark or another question are two techniques that might come in handy in such situations.


“We pose and respond to queries in the belief that the magic of conversation will produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts,” write Brooks and John.

Without conversations there are no relationships, and efficient, intelligent and effective questions and answers are the vital ingredients of successful conversations.

Source Article: The Surprising Power Of Questions
Author(s): Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K John