Asking good questions starts with a clear understanding of what you want to know. Broadly speaking, do you want the facts or do you want someone’s opinion or judgement? Once you have the objective clearly in mind you need to ask questions that will quickly get you the best information available. In pursuit of that sometimes elusive goal the following tips may help:
1. Unless you want simple factual answers don’t ask yes or no questions, otherwise known as closed questions. Questions with “would,” “should,” “is,” “are,” and “do you think” all steer the responder toward yes or no answers that close the conversation down. More open questions, beginning with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “how,” or “why” lead people to give more thought to their answers and provide fuller answers.
2. Ask follow up questions. Opinions and judgements are based upon a set of assumptions, by asking follow up questions you will gain insight into these assumptions that will help you develop your own opinions about things. Ask questions such as, “What makes you say that?” or “Why do you think that?”
3. Don’t be afraid of silence. People feel the need to fill the holes in a conversation and this may bring out the critical bit of information you seek.
4. Don’t interrupt. Not only does it suggest that you don’t value what the other person is saying, it can also interrupt their train of thought and direct the conversation the way you want, rather than the way it perhaps should go. Let the person answer in full, even when you think you are not getting the answer you require, then use a subsequent question to direct them back to the topic when there is a natural pause. If you have to interrupt for the sake of time, then be polite. Ask to confirm that you have understood them correctly and then bring them back to the point.
As Eugene Ionesco observed, “It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.”