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After listening to HBR’s podcast ‘Ask Better Questions’, I realized that I have really been underestimating the power of asking the right questions to the right people. Despite watching episodes of Law & Order (SVU…on repeat), I never saw asking questions to be some sort of science-backed strategic endeavor—when I want to know something, I just ask the closest person I think may know the answer, pretty simple. Well, spoiler alert: it’s not that simple. Turns out that the way we ask questions, how we structure them, which ‘asking’ words we use, even our tone and body language, all control the quality of information we receive in return—which directly impacts the types of relationships and experiences we have in life. So, by asking the wrong types of questions or phrasing them incorrectly, we hold ourselves back from creating new connections and opportunities that could help to determine our levels of success and happiness.

Bottom line: if you’re feeling unfulfilled with one or more areas of your life, a simple shift in the way you ask yourself and others questions could be key. Here’s 4 tips on how to ask better questions that can help you overcome problems, gain valuable resources, and move you forward in life.

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1. Determine What You Want to Know

To guarantee a beneficial answer to your question, you first need to ask yourself what it is exactly that you want to know, so you can determine who your best go-to source is. You could ask yourself:

  1. Do I need a factually correct answer that requires a data or science-backed answer?
  2. Do I need an expert opinion?
  3. Do I need a well-reasoned judgment, such as asking a local for directions in a new city, or a friend about your outfit.

Once you determine exactly what it is you need, you’re onto finding the most reliable source who can give you beneficial, high-quality answers. 

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2. Strategically Structure Your Questions

If you want an honest response to your Q, it’s important to structure it in a way that’s empowering and positive to the other person. You want them to feel comfortable opening up and dishing out the all the deets. In his book, Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask, Michael Marquardt says, “Too often questions sound like accusations, putting the emphasis on the wrongdoing of the person. This puts them in defensive mode and can change their answers.” Instead of asking “Why are you behind schedule?” Marquardt suggests asking, “How do you feel about the project thus far?” This gives the person a safer space to share information without feeling accused.

Another good route to take is through open-ended questions. “Open-ended questions encourage the person being asked to expand on ideas and explore what is important to them or what is comfortable to reveal”, writes Marquardt. For example, instead of asking “Do you agree with this decision?” ask “What do you think about…?” or “What do you suggest I do next?” Open-ended questions also show your interest and respect for the views of others, and can make you more likable as a person.  On the HBR podcast, Leslie John says, “if we get people talking and seem responsive and empathetic, they’re going to like us more. By asking open-ended questions you’re also saying, I want to know your perspective because I respect and care about you. And that’s likeable.”

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3. Master the Follow Up

The key to asking better questions is probably the most overlooked, and that is through the follow up Q’s. Alison Wood Brooks says that, “almost all of our effects of question asking are explained by the power of follow up questions.” Digging deeper into the initial answers and asking questions such as, “What makes you say that?” or “Where did you pick this up?” will give additional insight that will help to form your own opinions on the matter. Alison suggests starting follow up questions with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “how,” or “why”. This open-ended approach leads to more thoughtful answers, much more information for you, and a deeper connection overall.

photo via jenavieve belair 

4. Really Listen

My Dad always says, “You were given two ears and one mouth for a reason.” Although that may be one (of his many) old cowboy sayings, it definitely has some truth to it.  Experts think so, too. If you want to ask better questions, start getting comfortable with asking, waiting, listening, and waiting some more. Don’t interrupt, and act engaged in the response, even if it may not be what you want to hear. When they pause, resist the urge to jump in and fill the holes in the conversation. Many times people will give you the answers you’re looking for if you just wait for it. Lean into the awkward silence, and you may be surprised at how quickly their dam breaks, and the ‘golden nuggets’ come pouring out.

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Remember that if you want good answers, they come from asking good questions. Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” If we consciously take the time to ask resourceful and solution-focused questions daily, we can better recognize opportunities that can help us overcome the challenges life inevitably brings, and be that much closer to reaching our goals.

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