Questions (how to ask the right ones)

Staff in organisations are always seeking information from others. Asking questions is an important part of this.

"...questioning is a uniquely powerful tool for unlocking value in an organisation: it spurs learning and exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and performance improvement, it builds rapport and trust among team members...... it can mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards..."

Allison Woods Brooks et al, 2018

Questioning is a skill that can be improved. Part of the skill involves

- a natural inquisitiveness

- good emotional intelligence (more details, see elsewhere in the knowledge base)

- ability to read other people, eg body language, tone of voice, words used, etc

- know how to frame and sequence questions

The more you practise questioning, the better you get.

Generally the more questions you ask, the better the responses, eg

"...among speed daters, people are more willing to go on a second date with partners who ask more questions..."

Allison Woods Brooks et al, 2018

Need to

- understand how answers to questions can make conversations more productive

- learn to ask questions that other people will enjoy answering.

Generally people don't ask enough questions; some of the reasons for this can include

- egocentric (too eager to impress others with their own thoughts, stories and ideas)

- apathetic (not interested, don't care, bored, etc)

- overconfident (think they already know the answer)

- ask the wrong question (which may result in getting a negative response and/or thought to be rude or incompetent)

- don't appreciate the benefits of good questioning, (generally most people don't realise that asking a lot of questions unlocks learning and improves interpersonal bonding)

eg in job interviews

"...asking questions such as 'what am I not asking you that I should?' can signal competence, build rapport, and unlock key pieces of information about the position..."

Allison Woods Brooks et al, 2018

People have conversations for 2 major reasons:

i) information exchange (learning)

ii) impression management (liking)

Eight types of questions

i) introductory, eg 'how are you?'

ii) mirror, eg 'I'm fine. How are you?'

iii) full-switched (ones that change the topic completely)

iv) closed ('yes or no' answers; useful in tense negotiations; reduces the chance of evasive answers)

v) semi-closed (allows a great range of answers; these can produce bias and manipulation)

vi) open-ended (answers go beyond 'yes or no'; can give a better understanding)

vii) follow-up (soliciting more information; this can give the impression that you are listening, caring and want to know more)

viii) indirect (gaining sensitive information by asking questions on another, usually unrelated, issue, eg asking about somebody else's salary level, when they are on the same pay level.)

Pessimistic versus optimistic

"...People are less likely to lie if questioners make pessimistic assumptions ('this business will need some new equipment soon, correct?') rather than optimistic ones ('equipment is in good working order, right?')..."

Julia Minson, Eric Van Epps, Jeremy Yip & Maurice Schweitzer as quoted by Allison Woods Brooks et al, 2018

How to improve your questioning

- ask more questions (especially follow-up questions)

- understand the importance of the types of questions (see above 8 types)

- understand what you are trying to achieve, ie

    i) cooperative (aiming to build a relationship or accomplish the task together, ie win-win result)

    ii) competitive or adversarial (aiming to uncover sensitive information from each other and/or serve own self-interest, ie win-lose result)

- sequence (generally people are more willing to reveal sensitive information when questions are asked in a decreasing order of intrusiveness, ie tough questions first; however, if the first question is too sensitive, you could offend; if the aim is to build relationships, then opening with less sensitive questions and escalating slowly can be effective)

- tone (generally people are more forthcoming when asked questions in a  casual way and/or given an escape hatch or 'out' in a conversation;

"...overly formal tone is likely to inhibit people's willingness to share information..."

Allison Woods Brooks et al, 2018

- group dynamics ("... Not only is the willingness to answer questions affected by the presence of others, the members of the group tend to follow one another's lead..."

Allison Woods Brooks et al, 2018)

- framing (giving the impression of being defensive, evasive, aggressive, etc can impact the openness of those being questioned)


"...Answering questions requires making a choice about where to fall on a continuum between privacy and transparency. Should we answer the question? If we answer, how forthcoming should we be? What should we do when asked a question that, if answered truthfully, might reveal a less than glamorous fact that will put us in a disadvantaged strategic position? Each end of the spectrum - fully opaque and fully transparent - has benefits and pitfalls. Keeping information private can make us feel free to experiment and learn. In negotiations, withholding sensitive information......can help you secure better outcomes. At the same time, transparency is an essential part of forging meaningful connections. Even in a negotiation context, transparency can lead to value-creating deals; by sharing information, participants can identify elements that are relatively unimportant to one party but important to the other - the foundation of a win-win outcome..."

Allison Woods Brooks et al, 2018


Keeping secrets as costs, ie concealing secrets during social interaction, leads to intrusive reappearance of secret thoughts. Also,

"...keeping secrets - even outside of social interaction - depletes us cognitively, interferes with our ability to concentrate and remember things, and even harms long-term health and well-being..."

Michael Slepian, Jinseok Chun & Malia Mason as quoted by Allison Woods Brooks et al, 2018

NB In organisational contexts, most people prefer privacy to transparency, ie underestimating the benefits of transparency (building relationships). People learn how to dodge or deflect questions to keep their privacy. This can include answering a question with another question or a joke.

In summary

"...Personal creativity and organisational innovation rely on a willingness to seek out novel information. Questions and thoughtful answers foster smoother and more effective interaction, they strengthen rapport and trust, and lead groups toward discovery......the wellspring of all questions is wonder and curiosity and a capacity for delight. We pose and respond to queries in the belief that the magic of a conversation produces a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts..."

Allison Woods Brooks et al, 2018




  (for more details see other parts of the knowledge base like active listening)


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