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Learn how to ask good questions to keep the conversation going

February 21, 2022 - 16 min read


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What’s a good question?

What makes you a good question-asker?

How can you start asking better questions?

What to avoid when asking questions

Moving forward

“Always the beautiful answer
      who asks a more beautiful question.”

e.e. cummings

Not everyone knows how to ask good questions. 

While it seems an easy enough concept, asking good questions is a craft that takes time and effort to perfect. You’ve probably asked the wrong question from time to time. That’s okay — you’re here to learn now.

Once you master this art, you’ll have a powerful tool available. Asking the right questions is crucial for good conversation flow and efficiency.


What’s a good question?


You might think that a good question returns the correct answer the first time 

You might think that a good question returns the correct answer the first time you ask. That's true if you're asking for directions to the highway or how to take your new prescription.

Rather than asking the same thing multiple times in various ways, good questions get right to the point. They’re concise and descriptive but not too wordy. When you ask a good question, the person you're talking to understands exactly what you mean. 

Sometimes you need this type of question when talking to other team members. Clear questions can clarify deadlines and uncover who is responsible or what vendor has already been signed.

Good questions avoid confusion.

A great question, on the other hand, returns more information. If you ask a great question, you gain valuable insight that helps you understand a problem better or see an opportunity you weren't aware of. 

Great questions allow the conversation to flow with ease. They aren't always fast, although they can be efficient. Have you ever been around someone who somehow always got right to the hidden heart of the matter, even when talking to strangers? You don't get that through looking for yes/no answers. 

To understand what makes a question great, it helps to know the different types of questions: 

  • Open-ended questions leave room for more discussion and demand more explanation. These are questions that don’t allow the responder to give simple “Yes” or “No” answers or short responses. Here’s a workplace example:

    How do you feel about the new policy updates at work?
  • Follow-up questions let you pursue the topic and expand the conversation. For example, when talking to a friend about their family planning you might ask:

    How would you react if your partner told you they were pregnant?
  • Leading questions prompt a specific response and steer the conversation in a new direction. You might ask your partner the following about a rental property: 

    Didn’t you love the house with the big pool? 

There isn’t a universal formula for asking great questions because it depends on the question asker and the context.

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What makes you a good question-asker?

It doesn’t matter what type of question you’re asking if it leads to the information you need. But to do that, you need to know what kind of information you’re looking for and who’s the best person to ask.

Here are three qualities that define a good question-asker:

1. Curious

Probing for interesting information requires critical thinking. A good questioner is curious above all. They move past basics and search for new information. Their questions prompt the responder to think outside the box and give thoughtful answers.

When considering how to respond to someone with a curious question, try taking your initial reaction one step deeper. For example, instead of asking “How was your day?” you could ask, “What was your favorite part of today and why?”

2. Purposeful

A good questioner knows that it’s all in the preparation. Be intentional. Choose your words with purpose and make sure you’re asking at an appropriate time. Before you launch into asking your question, think carefully about why you’re asking it. Note what you hope to learn from the response.

You’ll never get the answer you’re looking for if you don’t know why you're asking. 

3. Brave

A critical characteristic of a good question-asker is bravery. Even if the question ruffles some feathers, you must ask the right one to gain clarity. Sometimes people don’t ask specific questions because they’re afraid of what others may think or say. It can be nerve-wracking to stand up and use your voice to ask tough questions.  


How can you start asking better questions?

Effective communication is vital for all relationships. Learning what questions to ask can improve how you work with your team members, leadership skills, and more minor, everyday personal or professional things. 

Here are nine tips on how you can start asking better questions:

1. Be a good listener

When someone gives you an answer or explains something to you, pay attention

If you don’t listen properly, you may find yourself asking already-answered questions. By focusing on listening, you’ll avoid asking general questions that you should probably know the answer to. 

When someone else is speaking, make eye contact and nod as you understand the things they say to stay engaged.

2. Don’t be afraid of your questions

If you’re confused about something, you have every right to ask for clarity. Maybe it’s your first time trying a new recipe or doing a task and you want to do it properly. Wrong questions don’t exist — especially if you’ve never done this before. Think about it this way: if you don’t ask your question, you may make some easily avoidable mistakes.

3. Do your research

Do you fully understand what you’re asking and why? It may seem redundant, but make sure you know what you’re asking. Focus on what you’re confused about.

Think about your intentions so you can craft questions that’ll give you meaningful responses. Consider the following: 

  • Are you looking for data or an opinion? 
  • How formal or informal do you have to be when posing your question? 
  • Are you looking for confirmation or insight, answers or exploration?
  • Do you know what you’ll find out, or will the information be surprising?
  • Are you seeking common ground or empathy from the other person?

If your question is too vague or confusing, you won’t get the answer you need. People can’t answer questions properly if you don’t set them up to succeed. Dive into your subject, and don’t be afraid to go beyond a surface-level question. 

4. Go where the conversation takes you

Everyone goes off-topic sometimes, but that’s not always a bad thing. Conversation can flow in many different directions before or after your question is answered. Rather than panic and think you have to only discuss the question, see where the conversation goes

You may find that the conversation prompts follow-up questions or answers to questions you planned to ask before voicing them. Try to relax, and don’t think every question-asking instance has to be formal.

 5. Use silence to your advantage

Question asking isn’t supposed to be a fast-paced conversation. Pausing to listen between answers gives you time to think about what was said and ask better follow-up questions. 

Don’t feel pressured to respond quickly. Fast responses can mess with the conversation’s flow. You don’t want to feel rushed or rush others, so learn to get comfortable with silence and give yourself time to think. 


6. Ask probing questions

Probing questions are great for promoting critical thinking, learning something new, or understanding how a person thinks.

A question that engages and prompts the other person to explore their thoughts demonstrates you’re curious about what they have to say. And asking questions that encourage exploring emotions and ideas will lead to more fruitful conversations. 

Here are a few examples:

  • What do you think is the best solution for the new app development?
  • How did you decide this was the right course of action?
  • What are you afraid will happen if we do this?
  • What will we do if our worst-case scenario comes true?

7. Keep your questions short

A long-winded question shows a lack of self-awareness. It can end up confusing someone more than it should. You want to provide enough details in your query that summarizes what you’re looking for in response, but nothing overwhelming. 

The person you’re asking should only have to hear your question once, not three or four times. Focusing on asking open-ended questions in one sentence can still set up a good conversation. 

8. Get your sequence right

Have empathy for the other party. Not everyone can open up right away and answer personal questions with ease. That’s why you should know how much trust you have with the person and keep their feelings in mind.

If you’re having a long conversation with lots to cover, put some thought into the order of your questions. You might not want to start with sensitive or challenging questions. Start by asking basic, easy questions before getting into emotional ones. 

9. Use the appropriate tone

All questions have different purposes and meanings behind them. Some are serious, while others are light-hearted and fun. It’s important to know when you must have a professional or serious tone and when you can be casual.

Being flexible and adjusting your style is key. Being overly formal in every situation can make people uncomfortable and inhibit their willingness to share information. When you ask your next question, take note of the vibes in the room or with the person you’re talking to. 


What to avoid when asking questions

Setting the right tone is key to making the responder feel comfortable enough to answer honestly and thoroughly. Learning to tap into your emotional intelligence and read the room are great ways to improve the quality of the conversation in your professional or private life. 

When we learn communication skills that make the other person feel safe, we develop deeper relationships with friends, partners, and colleagues and lead stronger teams of people

Here are three things to avoid when asking questions:


1. Avoid leading questions

A leading question already assumes an answer. People who ask leading questions typically want to confirm what they already know. While it’s harmless in some situations, it doesn’t leave room for different responses or new information. 

The power of questions is learning something new from the answer. Try not to lead someone to a specific answer if their opinion could be valuable. Keep your question clear, simple, and, when you can, uninfluenced by bias

2. Don’t ignore clear signals

Learning to ask good questions requires reading the room and picking up on verbal and nonverbal cues the responder is sending us. 

Answering questions isn’t always easy, and that might show. Pay attention to the person’s body language. Is their body pointed toward you or are they turned away? Do they maintain eye contact or avoid looking at you? Are their tone, speed, and volume suggesting they feel comfortable or distressed?

If the other person is showing you they’re uncomfortable, respect their space — you’re likely not getting great or honest answers, anyway. Making the person uncomfortable won’t build trust or help you learn the information you need.

You do need to learn when to use assertiveness as a questioning technique if someone seems to be withholding necessary information. Being insistent with an employee you suspect is lying won’t have the same effect as being relentless with someone sharing a vulnerable experience.

3. Don’t ask “Yes” or “No” questions

Closed-off questions that only require a “Yes” or “No” answer are great for confirming information, not advancing a conversation. To keep the chatter flowing, ask questions that prompt your conversation partner to explore and develop ideas. 

You can easily turn closed-off questions into open ones. For example, instead of asking “Did you like the movie?” you could ask “What did you think about the movie?”

Moving forward

No one becomes an expert conversationalist overnight. But learning how to ask good questions and wait patiently for the answer are important steps to improving your communication skills.

Asking direct but open questions makes your expectations clear and helps the listener answer appropriately. Avoid leading questions or shutting the conversation down after their response. Instead, use your question-asking skills to form genuine connections and improve your relationships — both at work and home.

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Published February 21, 2022

Elizabeth Perry

Content Marketing Manager, ACC

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