Asking the Right Question at the Right Time

Last Updated May 2, 2007 7:25 PM EDT

As children we learn about the world around us by asking questions. We are curious, interested, and hungry for information. However, our inquisitiveness is often suppressed by tired, irritable adults who tell us we ask too many questions. At school, we are the ones being asked the questions and are expected to provide the "right" answers. When we reach our teens, we seem capable of asking only questions to which the answer is "no."

So how, as adults, can we be sure we are asking the right question at the right time to get the right answer—the one that will give us the information we need to make accurate judgments and good decisions? This article will help you determine the best approach to gathering important information.

What You Need to KnowWhen I lose track of what's going on in a meeting, how can I get back on track?

Particularly in a long meeting, something that someone says can trigger a series of thoughts that causes our mind to wander off on a tangent. If this happens to you, you could ask for a summary of the points that have been made so far, in order to confirm your understanding. Doing this may in fact be beneficial to everyone present, as it gives them a chance to remind themselves of the points made and clarify any misunderstandings at an early stage.

What's the best way to get someone to cut to the chase when they're taking too long to make their point?

You may have to ask a series of closed questions to clarify the point he is trying to make. You could preface your questions with "I need to check my understanding…"

Sometimes a coworker will answer a different question to the one I ask. How can I ensure that I get the information I asked for?

You may need to be assertive and stop the person from going down the wrong path. Look for a chance to interject with a comment like: "That's very interesting, but I wonder if I could redirect you to answering the question…"

How can I find the right person to ask?

You may have to find a person to ask that question—someone who has a wide network and a clear understanding of the professional environment. Get his or her opinion about who to approach for specific kinds of information. Ending every conversation with the question "Who else should I be talking to?" will give you access to a wider network of informed people.

What to DoKnow the Different Types of Question

There are several different types of questions described below. Choose the type of question that best serves your purpose—or determine the sequence of questions you need to ask. You may want to begin with a closed question before opening up the conversation to explore an issue more fully. For instance, "I understand that you think we should do more market research before we release the product?…Would you explain why you think this is necessary?"

Closed questions

Closed questions are questions that prompt unambiguous "either/or" answers, for example, "yes" or "no," "big" or "small," "green" or "blue." Closed questions are useful if you want to clarify a situation or confirm your understanding of something that was just said. They do not lead to conversations or discussions.

Open questions

Open questions are the tell-me-more questions, "Who…?", "What…?", "Where…?", "When…?", "Why…?" and "How…?" They elicit a great deal of information and are designed to explore the views and opinions of others. They are often used for problem solving or in philosophical discussions. Open questions often invite imaginative responses, so they encourage people to think creatively.

Open questions are also used in coaching conversations to bring the ideas and natural wisdom of the people being coached to the surface. They can literally hear their thought processes as they work out something that they may not have thought about before. Open questions bring out what otherwise would remain tacit and hidden.

Factual questions

Factual questions are asked to elicit information in situations in which everyone in a group—of scientists, for example—shares the same opinion or belief.

Naïve questions

Naïve or childlike questions are often a deliberate attempt to bring the core of an issue to the surface. They tend to disturb the equilibrium and, therefore, are often ignored, but the longer they are ignored, the greater the collusion of ignorance. Understanding their usefulness is very important. Typically, the naïve question is "Why?" followed by another "Why?" and yet another "Why?"!

Questions that pass information

In some circumstances, questions are a good way in which to be allowed to give, rather than get, information. The interview is an example. If your interviewer fails to ask you a question that permits you to show yourself in the best light, you may want to ask a question that prompts the interviewer to follow up, for example, "Would you like to hear about my work experience overseas?" This is a technique that can also be used effectively in meetings or if you are trying to influence the outcome of a negotiation.

Provocative questions

Provocative questions can stir up debate. An example is, "So you're saying that child labor is OK?" Questions like these generally relate to values, focus on a rational inconsistency, or have an emotional element to them. On one level they seek a closed answer, but on another, warrant debate. They are about extremes. We sometimes hear these questions asked during political debates when someone is trying to reveal a politician's hidden agenda. Be careful about asking provocative questions. They are contentious and can not only stir up debate but can also touch off a bitter argument.

Leading questions

A leading question implies a particular answer before a respondent has given it. For instance, "When did you start embezzling from your company?" implies that the person is an embezzler. We often hear leading questions asked in television interviews or in televised court proceedings when witnesses are being examined by the prosecution.

Clarifying questions

Clarifying questions are used to be certain that you have understood properly what someone has said. You might ask, "Did you mean…?" and follow up with your interpretation of what the person said. If you would like to understand the motivations for a person's response or statement, you could ask, "Would you explain how you came to that conclusion?"

Consider the Context

Ask whether the physical surroundings suit your purpose. Do you need privacy or can you pose your question in forum where opinions can be openly shared? If the setting is wrong, the respondent may be inhibited and not give a complete or carefully considered response.

You can get different responses depending on the timing of your question. Watch how your conversation plays out and try to ask your question when it will have the greatest chance of yielding the information you need—or creating the most impact.

Ask the Questions in the Right Way

Ask one question at a time and wait for the respondent to answer before asking another. Asking multiple questions only confuses the respondent, who may not know which question to answer first, and while answering one may forget to answer the other. A multiple question might be, "Can you tell me if you've had any management experience and if you've had responsibility for managing a sales force?"

As we have seen, you should beware of asking leading questions that put the other party on the defensive; you want a clear, carefully-considered answer, not a spur-of-the-moment rejection of your "accusation." For example, instead of asking "Why did you make these mistakes in the report?" you should ask a series of questions which will give you a better idea of the reasons behind the situation. Maybe you could start with: "How do you feel about the quality of this report?"

Listen to the Answer!

After you have asked the "right" questions, be sure you listen to the answers! If you anticipate someone's response, you risk filtering out information that goes against your expectations. Try to withhold any comments or subsequent questions until you have fully heard and understood what has already been said.

What to AvoidYou Don't Know Exactly Why You Are Asking the Question

Before you think about how to ask your question, think about why you are asking the question. Different types of questions yield different results, so it is important to have thought about what you need from an answer. Ask yourself what you consider to be the purpose of the discussion, and what kind of information you are expecting to obtain.

You Don't Make It Clear What Information You Need

Be precise. Articulate your question clearly and unambiguously. Some people take a circuitous route to asking a question. Maybe they don't know whether they should be asking it, or maybe they don't know how to go about it. Whatever the reason, by the time they finish asking their question, no one really knows what the question is!

This can occur if you are uncertain of the situation or the person you are about to question. Plan beforehand, and think about the circumstances, the environment, and the type of question that will give you that information.

You Assume That You Know How the Other Person Will Respond, So You Don't Listen

This is a common mistake. If you ask a question, you must listen to the answer. Suspend disbelief or judgment and allow the person to finish before you follow up with another question. You could also repeat what you understood the person to say, so that he or she knows you were listening and to be sure that you understood properly.

You Argue

This is another common mistake. If you disagree with what is said, it does not mean that the other person is wrong. Nor does it mean that he or she needs to be persuaded to agree with you. Sometimes other people just see the world differently from us!

You Don't Ask the Question Because You Don't Want to Show Your Ignorance

This can get you into trouble. It is better to ask the question and perhaps look foolish for a few minutes than to make a mistake that you will regret later.

Where to Learn MoreBooks:

Browne, Neil and Stuart Keeley. Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking. London: FT Prentice Hall, 2006.

Finlayson, Andrew. Questions That Work: How to Ask Questions That Will Help You Succeed in Any Business Situation. New York: AMACOM, 2001.

Web Sites:

Steve Pavlina, Personal Development for Smart People: www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2006/02/asking-the-right-questions

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association—Asking the Right Questions in the Right Ways: www.asha.org/about/publications/leader-online/archives/2003/q2/f030429b.htm