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How to ask the right question

To get the right answer, you need to ask the right question. Learning to ask the right question is a crucial skill for interviews, research, and problem solving. It can guide you to the truth, discover things you never expected, and even help you learn more about yourself. How do you ask the right question? Here are a few tips.

1. Ask the right type of open-ended question

An open-ended question requires explanation and cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. Asking open-ended questions is a cardinal rule of interviewing, but there are two problems with them:

  • What if you have to ask a question that requires a simple yes or no?
  • When I ask an open-ended question, why do I still get a short, vague answer? (Q: What did you think of the party? A: It was fine.)

It is acceptable to ask yes/no questions if you follow them up with an open-ended one. After all, you can’t ask your friend what he thought about the party unless you knew he went. If the open-ended question is not providing useful information, it may be too broad. Asking a more focused question encourages people to give more detail.

Example

Q: What did you enjoy the most about the party?
A: I loved the music. They had a great DJ…

2. Follow up with questions that show your interest.

The right question can lead to more right questions, but you have to be careful that you don’t come off like a police interrogator. That will cut off the line of answers. You need to show interest in the answers people give. If you’re asking the person in the first place, you’re already interested in the answers they give. Make sure you express that interest sincerely in the questions you ask.

Example

Q: I love eighties funk. What other music did he play?
A: He mixed in some new rap too…

3. Ask for opinions instead of passing judgement.

As you ask questions, you may come across answers you do not agree with or even make you uncomfortable. Resist the temptation to pass judgement too soon. By doing so, you may miss out on information you need to make a proper judgement of the situation. It also cuts off the conversation. People won’t feel like sharing answers with you if they feel you’ve already made up your mind and aren’t really interested in their opinions.

Example

Q: When you saw those people getting drunk in the corner, what did you think about that?

4. If you have assumptions, ask the other person to confirm or correct.

You may know or think you know the answer to a question. And you may be wrong. Tell the other person what you know and ask them to confirm or correct the information you have. Don’t make it an accusation. Express uncertainty on your part — because if you were absolutely sure, why ask — and ask for their help to clarify. You are more likely to get useful information.

Example

Q: I heard a rumor than Trina was seeing other men, but that doesn’t sound right to me. What do you know about this?

5. Ask for clarification (to catch deception).

The previous tips will encourage others to share information with you. What about the person with something to hide? What if someone is lying to you? The way to catch them is by asking for clarification. Feed back previous statements that contradict or don’t seem to make sense.

If you accuse someone of lying or ask questions that imply that they are, they will clam up or try to spin more lies to cover themselves. Or they might not be lying at all, which instantly kills the conversation — and your credibility. Asking for clarification in a non-threatening way flushes out the liar. They’ll either stammer, spin outlandish information, or better still, admit to the lie and tell the truth. And if they are telling the truth, they can clarify misunderstandings you may have. Either way, the result is better information.

Example

Q: You said that you had gotten home at midnight, but I saw this Facebook post you sent from the party at two a.m. What really happened?

More tips

Need more tips on asking the right question? Here are some links to additional articles:

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