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Do You Know How to Ask Questions Properly?

The way we ask questions influences the quality of the answers from our conversation partners. The good news is that by asking questions, we naturally improve our emotional intelligence, which in turn makes us better questioners - a virtuous cycle.

Research dating back to the 1970s suggests that people have conversations to accomplish some combination of two major goals: information exchange - learning and impression management - liking. The sheer number of questions is not the only factor that influences the quality of a conversation: the type, tone, sequence, and framing also matter.

Here are different questions and statements, all with a similar objective for the person who asks them. In spite of the fact that they may seem neutral to the person who asks them, they trigger very different emotional responses when they reach the person who is receiving them.

When inquiring about a decision you could ask:

  1. “Why have you made that decision?” - implies lack of trust, triggers defensiveness

  2. “Can you tell me more about your decision?” - implies curiosity, triggers collective thinking

  3. “It would help me to understand more how you came to a decision” - implies interest, triggers support

My default question when I'm in a hurry and under pressure is why, which obviously does not help. The presence of judgment in questions negatively impacts the psychological safety of others and can trigger a reactive fight-or-flight response.

I have learnt though that with a new perspective and without pressure, I can choose to use words that won't trigger defensive reactions.

In order to advance more difficult conversations, those skilled at engaging others with quality questions understand how vital it is to hear what other people have to say. Conflicting opinions are expected, and they agree to disagree with each other.

When we remain consistently considerate of others, regardless of differences, position or authority, we our questions can take us a long way.


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