How to Ask Better Questions

In his book, A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger reasons that the value of an answer is quickly becoming next to nothing. With Google at our fingertips, Alexa and Siri at our beck and call, and other artificial intelligence technologies invading all aspects of our lives, we can quickly answer common questions about history, scientific facts, and even opinions on current issues.

 While AI may never answer Derek Zoolander’s question, “Who am I?”, most other answers are becoming or will become readily obtainable.

As a result, the value has shifted increasingly to asking powerful questions, though philosophers such as Voltaire have long held this position. As discussed in 10 Things Great Leaders Do, great leaders ask powerful questions to create awareness of new possibilities, pave new pathways to overcome obstacles, and to make brainstorming sessions additive and not reductive.

 Asking good questions takes practice, and below are several tips to help move the needle on your question asking ability.

  •  Be Curious: The ability to ask a good question starts with a baseline of curiosity. Curiosity to hear and learn other perspectives. Curiosity to learn more about other people, your environment, and the world around you.  As you approach any situation, keep your mind open to learning by being curious. Focus on the 1% of a topic that you don’t know in place of thinking about the 99% you already understand. A renewed mindset will enable great questions while also starting to reduce confirmation bias in looking for information that expands instead of confirming your understanding or point of view.

  • Be Humble: Asking good questions also requires a dose of humility. Humility to approach a conversation without assuming you already know the answer. A lack of humility usually leads to yes/no questions that will only confirm your point of view. Accept that on almost any topic, there is an opportunity to learn from others or at the very least to hear another perspective.   Prior to entering any conversation, especially one where you consider yourself the expert, ask yourself, “What aspects about this topic do I not know?” or “What part of my understanding needs additional support or insight?” Accepting that there is always more to know will aid your ability to ask powerful questions.

  • Be Present: Another key to asking powerful questions is to be present in the moment. Don’t think about what else you have to do that day or the next meeting, but truly focus on the conversation at hand. To help be more present, plan for transitions between meetings and phone calls. For example, schedule 5 minutes on your calendar to review notes from the last meeting on the next topic to make a crisp transition into the conversation at hand. Doing so will allow you to be more present, a state that yields more insightful questions.

  • Listen Actively: Asking good questions is also enhanced through active listening.  Studies show that most people consider themselves to be good listeners, but in reality the opposite is true. Active listening requires attention to what is said as well as what is not said. It also requires that you be aware of tone, facial expression, and body posture. Active listening will allow you to ask follow-up questions that tease apart assumptions, taps into fears, and unearth long held beliefs.

  • Poke the Bear:  A good question is sometimes provocative.  Step out of the norm and don't be afraid to ask a question that challenges a point of view or an established truth. It’s precisely those questions that can yield the most insight. Try asking, “What if that were not true?” or “ What assumptions are you making in drawing your conclusion?” in place of a softball question.

  • Ask Open Questions: Most leaders tend to ask “closed” questions (those which yield a binary yes/no response) as way to efficiently make decisions. While that approach may save time in the short run, in the long run, new ideas don’t get surfaced and the status quo will prevail. In place of binary questions, try asking “open” questions. In place of “Will that approach succeed?”, try asking, “What risks exist with that approach?” To learn about 5 types of open questions to trigger growth and expansive conversations, read 5 Types of Questions Leaders Can Use to Drive Growth.

  • Lack of Attachment: Asking powerful questions also requires a lack of attachment to the answer or outcome. Ask questions without concern for the answer. Don’t try to steer the conversation towards a particular answer and be open to new information that bubbles to the surface.

  • Don’t Fear Silence: Maximize the impact of each question by providing silence after you ask each one.  Great questioners not only ask insight-provoking questions, they also provide space for others to consider new ideas that come up. Fight the urge to fill the empty space with words and noise. Doing so will show that you truly want an authentic response versus “the right answer.”

Asking powerful questions turbo charges any developmental conversation and will also yield key insights that can drive groundbreaking results. Questioning skills can be learned over time. Start today by practicing the tips above.