February 20, 2019

By Khondker Faraz Shafiq

“A prudent question is one half of wisdom” – through this quote, English philosopher, Francis Bacon likened the asking of a well thought out question to that of having already obtained half the wisdom of the answer. That is to say, by constructing a question that focuses on the root of a problem, we stimulate the minds of ours and of those around us whom we ask, to probe into the possibilities and alternatives that a solution can represent. Studies also show that people who ask more questions are perceived to be high in responsiveness and are thus more likeable to others. However, many people make the mistake of not asking the right questions, or not asking enough questions – often out of fear that they would come off as incompetent or bothersome. They tend to work with the limited information that they have and arrive at answers that may not always be right or accurate. 

Companies that taste success in their marketing strategies, and create the game changing products that they introduce into the market, do so by asking the right questions. To them, the question is a very important aspect to get it right. Therefore, they do not look for answers based on the question, “how do we make our product sell?” Instead they look deeper. During Apple’s starting years, the late co-founder Steve Jobs often wondered, “How do we make this more user friendly?” This was a question that followed the initial inquiry, “Why aren’t the masses adopting the computer?” Apple’s immense success is a testament to the fact that they knew what they were doing. And they knew because they asked the right questions. Asking the right questions ultimately leads us to the right answers.  


Good conversations initially start off with a closed-ended question to enter into a topic of conversation, and develop with a series of open ended questions. Shooting one closed-ended question one after another often makes one come off as uninterested and leads to a dying conversation. Thus open ended questions help the other person open up and make you seem genuinely interested. This also paves the way for reciprocity as the other person is more likely to be interested in wanting to know more about you.

When we ask the question “Where are you from?”, we are often tempted to follow up with common responses such as, “Did you grow up there all your life?” or, “Did you like it better there?” A more engaging and thoughtful response would be to say, “What was it like growing up there?” and, “What made you decide to move here?” This not only shows that you’re interested in what the other person has to say, but also opens up more topics that you could delve into as the conversation flows.

Similarly, some clichéd questions such as, “What’s your favorite hobby?” can be replaced with, “What excites you the most right now?” Such a question is less specific and more welcoming as it allows the person to talk about their life, hobbies, interesting people, events, work or anything that they are very passionate about. Moreover, you can get to know far more about a person and sometimes get very thought provoking answers. 


Apart from their obvious use in research questionnaires and surveys, closed-ended questions seem to not be very effective. Does this mean that using closed-ended questions in conversations are ill advised?  By studying negotiations and organizational behavior, Assistant Professor Alison Wood Brooks and Associate Professor Leslie John of the Harvard Business School shed lights on the importance of closed-ended questions when it comes to competitive conversations.

‘Competitive’ interactions are identified when at least one of the speakers has an agenda or requires sensitive information; whereas ‘Cooperative’ interactions take place when two people are having a brainstorming session. One would expect an interaction to be competitive during negotiations between a seller and a buyer, where the buyer expects full disclosure of the particular characteristics of a product. If you were the buyer in this case, hoping to purchase a car, it would be more useful to ask whether specific components of the car has been damaged or replaced rather than simply asking for a rundown of the car’s history. Use of open-ended questions such as asking for the history gives the seller scope to not fully disclose everything about the car as they are required to do so.   


Studies show that most people seek relationships with others where they can connect with others having multiple things that they can relate with. David Burkus, author of several bestseller books, suggests avoiding questions about work or at least not using them until we’ve acquainted ourselves with the person better during social events. He instead suggests using several interesting and thought provoking questions like, “What’s the best thing that’s happened to you this year?”, “What is the most important thing that I should know about you?”, “What do you do for fun?” or “What are you looking forward to?”

We often think that pessimism in our words is undesirable. Carrying on the insights of Professors John and Brooks, if you expect an answer in the negative, framing the question in a way suggesting that you’re not hoping to get a positive answer can help elicit a more truthful response. Thus, saying “I won’t be receiving the papers by tonight, will I?” in a friendly tone, in the place of “Am I going to receive the papers by tonight?” is likely to work better.

For conversations that are difficult and sensitive in nature, it is sometimes useful to start with heavy questions first and then taper down to less probing questions. While this sounds like a counterintuitive approach, by asking a more sensitive question first, the responder would feel the following questions are less intrusive thanks to a sort of ‘Recency Effect’. Thus they would answer them with more honesty than they would have if the latter questions were asked first. This is the opposite to what you should do if they are trying to build a relationship with someone and want them to like you.

Finally, utilizing the ‘Five Whys’ tool in solving unyielding problems of daily life can be very useful. It showcases the usefulness and significance of asking more and more questions. In order to get to the root of a problem that seems to have no solution on the horizon, we simply ask “why” something is wrong, and ask “why” again once the explanation to the first question is provided. By asking why each time and receiving a more in-depth answer than the first, newer perspectives and issues emerge that seem to be totally unrelated at first but are actually connected. 


Hidden in the quotes and words of many famous people, the advice of questioning everything is ever so present. Any accomplished person would agree that to stop questioning would be tantamount to committing a serious offence; better to stay hungry and foolish. It is also not necessary that you always get the answers to your questions. Sometimes, simply asking the right questions can impact your life or those of others. Asking yourself “What gets you of bed every morning?” has the potential to motivate you in ways you never thought possible. Therefore, to question well is an irreplaceable success tool.    

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