Do you know how to ask great questions? You will by the end of today’s episode!
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I’m sure you all know how to ask questions. This isn’t a podcast for beginner English learners – and I’m not interested in telling you how to correctly use how, why, and where. But do you know how to ask good questions?
To be honest, most people are not good at asking questions. And not just English learners – sometimes native speakers are even worse. I sat in so many university classes where people asked awful and pointless questions. And I’m sure I have asked a lot of bad questions in the past.
But it is something I’ve tried hard to work on and a skill I’ve tried to develop. In fact, question asking is one of the most important skills in our modern world. Why?
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Question Asking is an Important Skill
If you ask the right questions, you’ll get the right answers. If you ask amazing questions, you’ll get amazing answers. And, by extension, if you ask the wrong questions or ask terrible questions, you’ll get wrong and terrible answers.
If you understand the usefulness of good questions, and you practice and develop your ability to ask great questions, then you’ll start to notice things change and improve. Your English conversations will become more interesting and varied. Good questions can make friends and new connections.
Questions are the best way to learn new things and share ideas. By asking the right questions, you can find new information; you can make progress in your business meetings; you can leave a good impression in job interviews; you can get extra help from professors with your university exams!
And research proves that question asking is an essential skill in conversations. Conversations basically have two purposes: to learn something or to make someone like you. Harvard research suggests that people who ask more questions in conversations are better liked and learn more!
But most people don’t ask enough questions! Here is something that might surprise you – asking questions in a job interview (as the job candidate) is one of the best ways to make a good impression… but most people don’t do it! Research from the London Business School and University of North Carolina has shown that asking questions in interviews makes the interviewer feel more involved and see the candidate favourably and helps the candidate understand the job better.
And despite the importance of asking questions, most of us have never been trained in the skill. Now, if you are a lawyer, police officer, doctor, or journalist – you probably have been trained in asking questions. It is seen as a key skill in these careers and professions. But we should all be trying to improve our question asking ability.
Some people are naturally good at asking questions. But most people need to practice. We don’t ask enough questions, and the questions we ask are not designed in the best way!
Different Types of Question
Not every question is the same. Our questions have different purposes and come in different forms. I’ll leave a link to an article introducing 15 types of questions, but I’ll talk about a few here!
A closed question is a question with only two possible answers. Did you go to the park today? You can answer this question either by saying “yes” or “no.” Just two answers.
Closed questions are useful when you need or want direct information – maybe you work in a supermarket and want to ask the customer Do you need a bag? or do you have a membership card? In these questions, you just want the information quickly and clearly!
Complete opposite to a closed question is an open question. Open questions encourage longer and more detailed or thoughtful answers. They use questions words like why, what, and how rather than do.
Let me give you a basic example. You want to know someone’s favourite fruit. You could use closed questions – Do you like apples? Do you like bananas? Do you like oranges? Each time you are just getting “yes” or “no” answers.
Or you could ask an open question – “What is your favourite fruit?” Now your conversation partner is free to respond in more detail. What did you do at the weekend? Why did you start studying English? What is your role in the department? These are all examples of “open” questions.
Leading questions are designed to lead a person into an answer – the person asking the question wants a certain answer or response. These questions are often used by salespeople or people trying to change your opinion and manipulate you. So, use them carefully.
An example of a leading question would be – Didn’t you think that movie was amazing? Rather than asking an “open” question, you are pushing the person into agreeing with your opinion. It is much easier to say yes to a question and agreeing to someone compared to saying no or disagreeing.
A probing question is a follow-up to a previous question. They are designed to help the speaker understand meaning, work out someone’s perspective, and refocus the conversation. These probing questions are so important to English learners – probing questions are really useful when you need help understanding something!
There are a few different types of probing question
- You can ask questions to clarify the meaning. What did you mean by “sometimes”?
- You can ask questions to refocus a conversation or discussion, and return the conversation back to the original point.
- You can ask questions to change the direction of a conversation!
An affective question aims to understand a person’s emotions. You ask one of these questions to understand feelings and people’s reactions or perspectives.
For example, How do you feel about transferring departments? or Is it important to you that the company offer’s free coffee and tea to employees?
There are many other types of question, so check out the article linked in the blog to find out more. But the main purpose of today’s episode is “good” questions… so what is a good question?
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What is a Good Question?
There is a famous saying – “There is no such thing as a bad question.” This is not true. There are bad questions. And there are good questions. If you want to get clear and interesting answers, you need to be asking the right questions. If you want to having better conversations, you need to be asking better questions!
So… what is a good question?
It obviously depends on context, but there are a few features that can make a question “good.” From a practical standpoint, a good question gets right to the point. You want your question to be concise, understandable, and clear.
As a student, so many times my classmates would ask professors incredibly long questions – by the time they finished talking, no one was clear what their question actually was. Often, try to ask leading questions or demonstrate how intelligent they are by asking long and wordy questions.
You need to think of the reason behind your question – why are you asking a question? Do you want a quick and clear answer? Do you want additional information? Do you want to encourage a conversation? Do you want to influence someone?
A really great question would receive an answer that tells you something you didn’t know before. And, in particular, tells you valuable information. Perhaps about opportunities or a different perspective!
And, a good question should help the conversation keep flowing – if you just ask closed yes/no questions you are going to struggle to have a nice and productive discussion. Asking questions that get interesting answers is the best way to maintain a conversation!
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A Guide to Asking Better Questions
Ask More Questions
The first step to asking better questions is easy… ask more questions! As I already mentioned, research has shown that asking more questions is a great way to make a good impression and learn more information!
However, simply asking more questions is not enough – you should be thinking carefully about the type and tone of questions that you use.
Follow Up Questions
Follow up questions have been shown to be a particularly “good” type of question. A follow up question aims to get extra information after the previous question. And research has shown that follow up questions demonstrate to a conversation partner that you are listening and care about the conversation.
For example, you may ask someone “Where did you go on vacation last year?” Then, after they respond, follow up with “How was the food there?,” “why did you choose there?”, or “would you go again?”
Interestingly, follow up questions are probably the easiest type of question to think about! Most people do it naturally – so make sure you use them in the future!!
Use Open Questions (when you can)
Open questions are the best way to find information and learn something new. They can also make people feel more comfortable in a conversation. For example, if you just ask closed and direct questions – Do you like football? Is Ronaldo your favourite player? Do you think Manchester City will win the Premier League this year? – it can sound a little like an interrogation instead of a conversation!!
Closed questions are also more likely to be biased and leading. It is easier to say yes or agree to a question, than to say no or disagree! Research has proven this. Closed questions can push someone into giving an answer that doesn’t actually reflect their opinion or feelings, while open questions allow the person to express themselves in their own way!
However, there are instances when you want to use closed questions. In business, especially business negotiations, sometimes you need to get a clear answer – and the only way to do so is ask a yes/no question.
Avoid Leading Questions
I mentioned leading questions earlier – you should generally avoid these in conversations. Asking a leading question like, “Don’t you hate this weather?” assumes the answer before the other person gets the opportunity to say anything – they may actually love the weather.
It is difficult to disagree with people, especially friends, so leading questions can be uncomfortable and annoying. Keeping a question open, and keeping your own personal opinion away from the question, gives you a much better chance to get a good answer!
The length of a question is also important. I mentioned earlier my experience as a student – people would always ask incredibly long questions. In fact, I often see it with journalists on TV today. They will be interviewing a sports star or politician and ask a question that is full of unnecessary information and description – often the interviewee will have to ask for clarification.
To avoid misunderstandings, keep your questions short. If you are asking a good question, the person you are asking shouldn’t need to ask for clarification or to hear it again. They should be able to give you an answer and understand everything you said straight away!
A one sentence open ended question is probably best!
Listening is also a really important skill to develop – and good listening leads to good question asking! If you can listen well, you will be able to make better follow up questions.
You will also avoid asking questions that have already been answered – you probably don’t want to leave a bad impression. Listening well will allow you to navigate and guide the conversation in the direction that you want!
And while listening, you should probably ant to make eye contact and gesture to know that you’re listening!
Follow the Flow of the Conversation
If you are in a casual conversation, sometimes you should just go with flow. Let the conversation take its course. You may ask a question, and during the answer and follow up questions the topic could completely change! This isn’t always a bad thing…
A conversation that goes in an unexpected direction can often be the most interesting and beneficial! So don’t be scared to follow the course of the conversation!
However, if you do want to refocus the conversation, you can use follow up questions to refocus!
This episode of Thinking in English has tried to introduce the art of question asking to all of you. People don’t think of question asking as a skill… but it really is a skill and one that you can practice!
I introduced different types of question, talked about what a good question is, and finally gave you some advice on how to ask better questions!
But what do you think? Do you think asking questions is an important skill? Have you ever been asked an amazing question? Have you ever been asked a terrible question?