On today’s episode, we are going to look at how to ask great questions! Asking questions is one of the most important skills in daily life, but most people do not realise we can practice and improve! I’ll look at why questions are important, the mistakes we often make when asking questions, and then some tips on how to improve!

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Vocabulary List

To clarify (v) – to make something clear or easier to understand by giving more details or a simpler explanation

Could you clarify the first point please? I don’t understand it completely.

Tremendous (adj) – very great in amount or level, or extremely good

They were making a tremendous amount of noise last night

respective (adj) – relating or belonging to each of the separate people or things you have just mentioned

Everyone would walk to school together then afterwards we’d go to our respective classes

fuel (v) – something that fuels a feeling or a type of behaviour increases it or makes it stronger

The president’s speech fuelled speculation that she is about to resign 

eager (adj) – wanting very much to do or have something, especially something interesting or enjoyable

He is very eager to meet you

apathetic (adj) – showing no interest or energy and unwilling to take action, especially over something important

Young people today are so apathetic about politics

To bias (v) to cause someone or something to have a bias (bias is the action of supporting or opposing a particular person or thing in an unfair way, because of allowing personal opinions to influence your judgement

I don’t want to bias your judgement!

Intrusive (adj) – affecting someone in a way that annoys them or makes them feel uncomfortable

The journalists intrusive questioning made me uncomfortable

transparent (adj) – open and honest, without secrets

We are committed to being totally transparent about our decisions

Asking questions is one the most crucial aspects of our daily lives. Questions allow us to help others, to learn new information, to solve various problems, and to understand other people’s behaviour. As an online English teacher with a mix of regular and new students everyday, asking questions is an essential part of my job; by asking the right questions I can encourage shy students to express themselves, clarify misunderstandings, and push students into using or practicing new or more complicated vocabulary. Outside of my job, questions have also been critical in other parts of life! I have lived in Japan and Taiwan, two countries that are so different from the UK. Without asking tremendous amounts of questions, I would never have been able to understand daily life, learn information about their respective cultures, and embrace as many unique opportunities as I did! 

Whatever your occupation, I guess you spend a lot of your time asking questions; asking for advice, asking for information, asking for confirmations. Nevertheless, we don’t normally consider asking questions to be a skill which can be improved! Some professions, such as doctors and lawyers, are trained to ask specific questions in order to do their jobs, but for most jobs this is not the case!! I think this is a missed opportunity. If we take time to think about how we ask questions, and how we answer questions, we can actually improve our work performances and business interactions! Questions encourage us to learn and exchange ideas, they can fuel innovation performance improvements, as well as building good relationships between coworkers, and finding potential risks early!

Let’s start by thinking about some of the problems most people face when asking questions! The number one problem is that we don’t ask enough questions. There are a number of reasons for this. People are often eager to impress others with their own thoughts, stories and ideas, but forget to ask questions! Some people are apathetic – they don’t care about other people’s opinions. Sometimes, overconfident people also don’t ask questions; instead they assume they already know the answers. In fact, unconfident people are sometimes reluctant to ask questions as well; they worry they’ll ask the wrong questions or be seen as rude! According to the Harvard Business Review, the biggest reason we don’t ask enough questions “is that most people just don’t understand how beneficial good questioning can be.” They give the example of job interviews. The majority of people excessively self-promote during job interviews. By doing this, they are less likely to ask questions – about the interviewer, the organisation, the work. Asking questions in a job interview is actually one excellent way of making the interviewers feel more involved in the conversation and view the candidate more favourably, while also helping the candidate decide whether the job is suitable for them!

In his classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie advised his readers to “Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.” More than 80 years after he wrote this, most people still don’t pay attention to this advice. Other common mistakes include asking unclear questions, asking leading questions, and asking unrelated questions! This is something I am regularly guilty of doing (although I would argue that as an online teacher I probably ask more questions than most other people)! So now we’ve looked at why questions are important and some of the common mistakes we make when asking questions, I am going to give some tips on how to ask good questions!

The first tip is to try asking open ended questions! An open ended question is a question that allows the person answering to express their own opinion freely. For example, instead of asking “Was your vacation fun?” you should try asking “How was your vacation?” Asking in this way will give you more fascinating answers, and does not bias the person you are in conversation with! While you can only answer closed questions with a yes or no, with an open one, you can answer as you’d like. On the other hand, there are situations in which closed questions (or yes/no questions) are more suitable; such as when you are looking for a quick and short answer. You should also be careful how far you are steering the conversation. We are all guilty of asking questions that are biased or leading. An example of this is asking “why are you angry?” to someone you think is angry. This question is assuming they are angry without actually knowing the truth; in this situation we should ask “how are you feeling?” if we wanted an unbiased answer!

Another tip is go with the flow! I always try to go with the flow in my English conversation classes. For instance, today a question about the weather in the UK ended up resulting in a conversation about the Christian religions usage of ancient religious holidays! How did we end up here? Well, we started talking about why it was dark in the UK at 3pm, which then turned into a conversation about the winter solstice (this is the day with the shortest daylight of the year), which then turned into a conversation about why Christmas and Winter solstice are on similar days! Some of your most interesting conversations can come from asking interesting questions and going with the flow! In addition, making sure you use the right tone is also crucial! Questions asked in a casual and friendly tone are often easier to answer than  the same question asked in an official or formal tone!

One of the tips that the Harvard Business review recommends is asking follow-up questions. Follow-up questions signal to your conversation partner that you are listening, care, and want to know more. People interacting with a partner who asks lots of follow-up questions tend to feel respected and heard. Remember that asking questions is not just about getting information, but also about building relationships and connections! One of the more surprising things I discovered when researching this episode is about choosing the sequence of questions you ask. Research suggests that in tense situations (like a negotiation) starting by asking difficult or tough questions first, you can actually get better answers to your later questions. This is an incredible piece of advice for anyone listening who has to negotiate or have conversations as part of their jobs. Let me clarify! When a questioner begins with a highly sensitive question – such as “Have you ever imagined doing something terrible to someone?” – following questions, such as “Have you ever lied to a friend?” are comparatively less intrusive! This makes people more willing to answer these questions. If you ask the questions the other way around (such as asking the most sensitive questions last) each question will seem comparatively more intrusive, which is the best way of building relationships! Of course, if the first question is too sensitive, you run the risk of offending your counterpart. 

Finally, answering questions is also an incredibly important skill! Deciding the best response to a question can be difficult, but it makes the difference between a bad conversation and a good conversation. To maximize the benefits of answering questions—and minimize the risks—it’s important to decide before a conversation begins what information you want to share and what you want to keep private. Being transparent can build trust and demonstrate you are honest, but sharing too much can be inappropriate! You need to decide what you want to share, and what you want to keep private. When you are asking questions, you should also consider this; what do you want to know, and what is not necessary!

Final Thought

This episode has discussed the impotence of questions, and hopefully given you some tips on how to ask better questions in the future! In summary, asking questions is a skill that most people do not practice, but should practice! We are all guilty of asking bad questions from time to time, but we can also all improve. Ask open ended questions; go with the flow; ask follow up questions; and make sure you give good answers!! 

Link to Harvard Business Review article


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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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