10 Ways to Ask Better Questions
Coming up with good questions matters more than coming up with answers. After all, a good answer is going to raise new questions. Effective questions drive conversations, learning, and life.
Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay
1. Pay attention.
Listen to what people say. Look at things you take for granted. The engaged life is not about seeing new things, but about seeing things anew. When you pay attention, questions naturally occur to you.
2. Be OK with looking ignorant.
We've all heard that there are no stupid questions. That's a lie. But if we let our fear of looking ignorant keep us from asking questions, we will almost certainly remain ignorant. Ask anyway.
3. 5 Ws and H.
The basics of good journalism: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Notice what's not there: "did," as in, "Did X happen?" The 5 Ws and H cannot lead you to a yes-or-no question. Closed questions don't just limit the answer to yes-or-no. They tend to close inquiry. Therefore....
4. Ask open-ended questions.
It's OK to ask an open-ended question as long as you are willing to ask a follow-up question. Did the car break down? Yes. Why? Open-ended questions don't just lead to conversations when asked between two people. They also lead to more questions, insights, digs, and therefore depth.
5. Ask follow-up questions.
Put listening together with open-ended questions, and you will almost certainly come to more questions. Ask them. See where they take you. When you get an answer, keep asking the questions the answer will imply.
6. Focus on meaning.
Meaning is something created by humans. A famous Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson shows two fishermen in a boat on a lake with a mushroom cloud in the background. One says to the other something like, "I'll tell you what it means, Norm. No size restrictions and screw the limit!" What happened matters. What matters more is what the happening means.
7. Focus on experience.
Epictetus said something like, "It's not what happens to you but what you think about what happens to you that determines your experience." He said it in Greek, but he said something like that. Experience is making sense of what happened.
8. Ask questions of fact.
Is X true or not? Is X the case?
9. Ask questions of value.
Is X better than Y? By what standard of measurement/evaluation?
10. Ask questions of policy.
Should we do Z? How should Z be handled? (If you're using "should," you're probably dealing with a question of policy.)