We want you to be able to ask smart questions with confidence. To avoid coming across as underprepared or out of touch, check out our tips for developing thoughtful, important questions. We’ve all heard the phrase, “There are no bad questions.” But is that really true? While your questions might not be inherently “bad” per say, they could be ineffective, inappropriate, or off topic entirely. Asking smart questions is harder, and more important, than you might think.
Define your goal.
Figure out the purpose of your question. Do you need to gather information? Better understand a problem? Get details on an important event? If crafted carefully, smart questions can clearly and succinctly answer these questions, and more. Smart questions will:
- Encourage learning and spark new ideas. When you’re able to get the answer to a question you’re curious about, it helps you to better understand complex processes.
- Unlock hidden value. Asking about the purpose of a product or service, for example, will give you insight into the “why” behind something you might have previously misunderstood.
- Improve your performance. By asking for feedback on what you’re doing well and what you could improve upon, you’ll know how to perform at your peak!
- Prevent potential pitfalls. Asking what went wrong in the past will ensure that you learn from, rather than repeat, mistakes.
- Build lasting relationships. Use a deliberately sequenced approach to build rapport first. Then, gradually increase the intensity and intimacy of your questions. Start simply and—as you gradually get to know, like, and trust each other—let your questions reflect your budding connection.
- Unlock learning. Satisfy your curiosity as you discover interesting ideas and fascinating facts.
- Keep your conversations on track. Don’t waste time with unproductive or off-topic questions. Plan your questions in advance to ensure everyone’s time and attention is respected.
We hope this list gets you started. But there will still be times when you have to think on your feet and ask questions on the fly. In that case, do as much research ahead of time as you can, but also be willing to just go for it and ask your question. Others are likely thinking the same thing, and would benefit from your question, too. If you aren’t 100% happy with how your question comes out, pause and ask if you can restate or rephrase what you mean for increased clarity. The person you’re talking to will appreciate your initiative and desire to get it right.
Craft your questions.
Now we’ve got a question for you. Think about the number of questions you ask each day. Do you just say whatever comes into your head? Or do you deliberately craft what you’re going to ask and how you’re going to ask it? All questions really are good questions. But while we don’t want to deter you from saying what’s on your mind, we do want to encourage you to slow down and think more deliberately about what you want to ask. Your questions should be open-ended and specific, and you want to be ready to ask follow–up questions when needed.
Avoid asking questions that have an obvious “yes” or “no” response. Open-ended questions go beyond the obvious to ensure you get the exact information you need. If you’re sitting down with a mentor, for instance, and you want to learn more about their road to success, instead of asking, “Are you proud of your accomplishments?” (which might only elicit a one- or two-word response), consider inquiring, “What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in your life in the last 10 years?” This way, they can talk you through their journey, discuss obstacles they’ve encountered, and get you excited about what their current life looks like. That being said, of course there’s a time and a place for yes or no questions—don’t forget those, too!
Specific is terrific!
The more you can clarify exactly what you’re asking, the better. If you need certain information to perform a task well, for instance, make sure you’re asking questions that are sure to get you the answers you’re looking for. Are expectations unclear? Take notes as you find out exactly what’s required of you.
Be sure to follow up.
Good follow–up questions come to you naturally based on what the person you’re talking to has previously said. However, this requires fine-tuning your active listening skills (more on that, here). Thoughtful follow–up questions dive deeper into what the person has said while indicating that you really care about their thoughts, opinions, and experiences. They make others feel respected and heard.
Ultimately, even if you’re the one asking the questions, smart questions serve a larger purpose and can benefit others, too. Remember that as much as you’d like to, you don’t already have all the answers. Oftentimes, people think that they already know what’s going to be said, so they either don’t ask or don’t wait around for a response. If you really want to ask smart questions, remember that listening reminds us of what others have to offer.