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How to Ask Good Questions

by | Jun 26, 2017

How to Ask Good Questions

Kids are prolific questioners.

Paul Harris, a Harvard child psychologist, says that a child will ask about 40,000 questions between the ages of 2 and 5. By middle school, though, that same kid will likely stop asking questions altogether.

Why? A couple key reasons:

  1. Neurologically, around age 5, our brains begin a process called synaptic pruning, which trims the neuroconnections that flourish in early life. This progression, essentially, makes us less curious about our surroundings, which leads to less questioning.
  2. Psychologically, however, the reason is much more straightforward: We’re scared. We’re scared of asking a “bad” question, a “dumb” question. The older we get, the more terrified we become of judgement.

So what is a “good” question, anyway? Here’s a breakdown to take into your next meeting:

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The Anatomy of a Good Question:

Questions that elicit critical thinking—drawing out new ideas and concepts, carving out fresh neural pathways in the brain—are good questions.

Good questions can help:

  • Surface your beliefs
  • Illuminate your biases
  • Expose your weaknesses

Ultimately, good questions inspire growth.

Here’s how to ask one (the criteria, so to speak):

1. Seek tacit knowledge:

Questions can uncover two forms of knowledge:

1. Explicit knowledge is likely written down somewhere, documented in a book or online. It’s often rooted in facts, making it objective. It’s also easy to explain. Articulating explicit knowledge is straightforward:

“It is 57 degrees in Rockville, Maryland,” said Siri.

2. Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is harder to communicate. The answer to a tacit question is usually rooted in the cumulative knowledge of complex principles:

“Energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared,” said the professor.

The latter is more interesting (and powerful) because it carries more potential to change the way you see the world. Good questions will unearth tacit knowledge. Feel free to just Google the explicit stuff.

2. Understand your assumptions:

Before asking a question, it’s important to recognize the implicit assumptions baked into your inquiry. In other words, what’s the context?

For example, if you ask a CEO about her approach to building out an executive team with the intention of following her process, then you’re assuming that what worked for her will also work for you.

There’s nothing wrong with this assumption. It’s fine as long as you factor in the context, the variables that differentiate your situation and that of the CEO’s. After all, her goals, her budget, her team are all unique, as are yours.

Good questions take these variances into account. Bad questions ignore them.

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3. Be clear and precise:

Misunderstood questions produce useless answers.

Be effortlessly understood.

4. Be open-ended:

It’s hard to think critically about a “Yes” or “No” answer. It is what it is.

This goes back to “elicit”versus “tacit”knowledge: Compelling, valuable questions rarely yield one-word answers. Therefore, asking your questions in an open-ended way will encourage better, more in depth answers:

Quick Tip:

  • Elicit answers are usually prompted by questions starting with Should, Would, and Are.
  • Tacit answers are typically prompted by questions starting with How and Why.

5. Be patient:

Silence is golden, especially after asking a question. Give it some time. Sit back and be still.

Resist the urge to fill silent moments with superfluous words.

The Gist:

The questions we ask speak volumes about who we are, what we know, and how we think. Questions are telling. They reveal a lot, so we sometimes avoid asking them for fear of judgement.

Are you afraid to speak up, to ask?

If you follow the right process, you don’t have to be.

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