How To Ask The Right Questions

Real talk? Dealing with people can be … exhausting. Of course it can also be beautiful, rewarding, and joyous, but when you’re looking for answers, it can be tiring trying to get a full and complete one.

Maybe there’s a master evader in your life (a teenager, perhaps?), or maybe it’s your job to pin down a certain, er, politician, who has a problem with the truth. When it comes to dealing with others, you’re going to have to ask all the right questions in an effort to get real answers.

How do you do that? Well, to start, you should signal your willingness to converse. Tone, body language, and the actual words we use can make all the difference when we start a conversation.

How does body language affect communication?

When it comes to body language, you may be giving off unintentional vibes that make others uncomfortable, defensive, or insecure.

Are you scowling? Shrugging? Eye-rolling? Are you a low-talker? A close-talker? Or, horrors, do you check your phone even as you carry on an in-person conversation? All these are no-nos.

Do a quick attitude check:

Don’t position yourself defensively. What does that mean? Read on.

  • Crossed arms, tapping feet, and hands on hips can all communicate a frustrated and annoyed persona—and that’s a quick way to make sure people don’t want to deal with you.
  • Hands should hang loosely at your side. Having engaging, open palm gestures can indicate you’re interested and open to whatever someone has to say.
  • Make sure you are eye level with the other person. Eye contact indicates that you’re interested and listening to the person and are wholly undistracted.

What does tone have to do with it?

Tone here means “a particular quality, way of sounding, modulation, or intonation of the voice as expressive of some meaning, feeling, spirit, etc.”

If you are asking questions in an accusatory tone, it may yield exactly zero results because the other person’s gut reaction will be defensive. Think of the difference between The Office‘s Dwight Shrute (whose tone was … a little off, to say the least), and Michael Scott, who often did—in spite of all other flaws—appear to care about his employees.

If you ask a question in a condescending tone, the other person may feel insecure and not provide a concrete answer because they are afraid of judgment or being wrong. For example, the simple question What do you mean by that? can be received entirely differently depending on what tone it is asked in. Asking it in a condescending way makes you look defensive and implies you already have an answer for whatever the other person has to say.

Whether you are trying to figure out what happened during an event or asking questions during a job interview, keeping a calm, genuinely inquisitive tone is essential and will inspire the person you’re questioning to be more open and forthcoming with their knowledge.

Word choice matters, of course

As for words, well, we all know that using the right ones can make a difference, but that’s especially true for when you’re asking questions.

Here we’ve listed some important words and phrasings that will help you get full and complete answers in the most efficient way possible.

Avoid should, could, would

When you want more than a “yes” or “no” answer, you have to make sure you’re using words that require more thought.

Should, would, and could pave the way for a simple yes or no response with little other explanation. These three words are known as modal auxiliary verbs, meaning you use them in conjunction with a verb to indicate, necessity, possibility, or ability.

Opening a question with these words typically falls in the possibility category, allowing for an answer but not an elaborate one. For example, asking, “Should we talk about this?” can prompt a “yes” or “no” answer, but it doesn’t necessarily inspire more elaboration than that.

Who, what, when, where, and why

Instead, use interrogatives  like the “5 W‘s:” who, what, when, where, and why. Interrogatives, defined as “a grammar tool used to convey questions,” inspire people to answer with a little more thought.

For example, asking, “Do you know why I am upset?” can yield a terse “yes” or “no” answer. Asking, “Why do you think I am upset?” opens up the opportunity for someone to elaborate.

Providing specificity when using interrogatives is important, too. Simply asking, “What?” (or an awkward “Hello, Peter. What’s … happening?”) gives the respondent an opportunity to evade the main point of your question. Instead say something along the lines of “Why do you feel that way?”

In addition to utilizing the 5 W‘s, try to avoid wording questions in an “either/or” way. Say there is a problem in the workplace that has two possible solutions. You can propose the question: “Should we try to rework the story or scrap it entirely?” This gives the person two choices. You might try asking, “I think the story needs some work. What do you think we can do to save it?” Your colleagues now have an opportunity to think outside the box for a solution.

Neutral words

Try to use neutral wording as well when asking questions. If you ask someone “What did you think about the terrible movie?” you’re effectively shading their answer with your own implications. If you genuinely want to know their opinion, simply ask, “How did you like the movie?” They’ll feel comfortable enough to divulge their honest opinion.

Try any of these neutral phrases (and adapt them to fit your own situation):

  • Share your thoughts about …
  • Can you explain why …
  • Tell me about …
  • How can we do this differently?
  • What would you do if you were me?

Patience always pays off

Trying to get a straight and complete answer out of someone can be tough, especially if the situation is a little precarious. In order to get full answers, you (the listener) need to give the other person room to speak. More simply put: stop interrupting. If you want to be great at asking questions, you need to give your respondent space to speak.

Stay quiet while someone answers you, and then proceed to ask your next question based on what they said.

Be “repetitive”

Being repetitive is technically thought of as a bad thing. It is defined as “characterized by or given to unnecessary repetition; boring, dull, repetitive work,” but when it comes to asking good questions, repetition is a really handy tool. Repeating an answer back to people, while keeping in mind tone and body language, can not only prove you were listening, it can help ensure that the answer given is one you can accept. 

Follow up

Want better answers? It’s pretty simple: ask better and more questions. After a person is done answering, follow up with something that expands upon what they said to keep the discussion going. Follow up with those insightful interrogatives. For example: What makes you say that? Or even Why do you feel that way?

The best part is you can utilize these strategies and words for social situations that range from job interviews to first dates! Let us know if you have questions!

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