The Importance Of Asking Great Questions

Question Mark Photo by Emily Morter

“I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.” – Lou Holtz

As we get older, we seem to value the importance of questions less and less. Throughout our years of school, teachers stand in the front of their classrooms and encourage students to ask questions. But as time passes between our childhood and our present-day selves, we ask fewer and fewer questions. According to psychologist Dr. Todd Kashdan , “A child asks 300 questions a day. By middle school, the number is down to practically none. By adulthood, our disposition toward questioning can range from the timid to the hostile.”

This is as backwards as it gets. The older we are, the more there is to know and the more questions we need to ask. Our lives are directly impacted by the questions we ask — or fail to ask.

There is great power and knowledge to be gained from asking questions. In fact, doing so can provide answers that lead to extraordinary results. Asking questions of yourself and those around you is the great place to start.

How To Ask A Great Question

While all great questions and answers aren’t necessarily a result of following these five steps, they will help put you on the right track:  

  1. Find the right type of question
  2. Create the right environment
  3. Let go of your assumptions
  4. Be open-ended
  5. Ask follow-up questions

1. Find The Right Type Of Question

Like we’ve already mentioned, great answers begin with great questions. As Gary Keller and Jay Papasan say in The ONE Thing, questions can generally fall under four different categories:

Each type of question has its pros and cons, but they can range from simple to revolutionary.

Small and specific questions aren’t life changing. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with asking a question like, “What can I do to add ten clients to my database this quarter?” While adding clients to your database is a positive outcome, you’re asking how to take an extremely small step, which leads to an extremely small gain.

A question like, “What can I do to add clients to my database?” is what we consider small and broad. These questions don’t have enough weight to them to set ourselves on a high trajectory. In fact, we think of these types of questions as brainstormers. While they allow us to generate a list of ideas, they don’t produce measurable results.

Big and broad questions like, “How can I double the size of my database?” may define the problem we want to solve, but they’re too generic to provide us with a starting point. Instead of being helpful, asking a question like this can leave us flapping in the breeze unsure of how to tackle it.

Then, there are the big and specific questions we can ask. In the context of a database, that kind of question might be, “What can I do to double the size of my database in the next six months?” We prefer this type of question. If you have a big goal you want to pursue, it’s the only type of question that is both visionary and measurable.

This specific question pinpoints a big goal (doubling the size of the database) and specifies when and how you want to reach that goal (in the next six months). And as a result, the question requires you to respond with a big and specific answer. Because it contains specific targets to aim for, there’s no wiggle room about what success will look like.

2. Create The Right Environment

Questions can fall flat if they aren’t supported by their environment. For a question to be embraced in the spirit it was asked, it’s important to create an atmosphere where curiosity is welcome.

We should start by letting those around us know that questions are rewarded. And then we must personally model that behavior. We can do this by setting the expectation with others and becoming more aware of what’s going on around us. When we show our own curiosity, we encourage others to do the same.

3. Challenge Our Assumptions

There’s a psychological phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger Effect that explains the more you know about something, the more unsure you are about what you know. The reason is because the more we learn, the more we understand that there are things we don’t know. That’s why when asking a great question, it’s important to not take anything for granted and look at each situation with fresh eyes.

When we let go of our assumptions, we become an observer of what’s going around us. Everyone has their own bias. We all have a lifetime of experience that we bring to the table when approaching just about any subject, and those biases inform us as we move forward. The best thing to do about our bias is to be aware of what they are. If we know what our own tendencies are and what we believe, we can sometimes remove ourselves from our own inclinations.

4. Be Open Ended

If you’re setting the right environment and coming from a place of curiosity, you’ll want to be sure to not stop a good train of thought in its tracks by phrasing a question incorrectly. It turns out that when it comes to formation, there is such a thing as a dumb question. Questions that inspire are often open-ended. They should start with “why,” “how” or “what do you think about…”

As Judith Ross describes in the Harvard Business Review, the best questions help to create clarity and encourage people to think critically. Open-ended questions allow people to reflect and see things in unpredictable ways. And most importantly, they aren’t posed with the purpose of receiving a specific answer.

5. Ask Follow-Up Questions

Improving our lives with great questions means giving our train of thought a long track to run on. The magic to a great question isn’t always the answers we’re given, it’s the other questions it leads us to.

The future of our personal and professional lives depends on revealing both questions and answers. There are things you know. There are things you don’t know. And then there are things you don’t know you don’t know. When we stop questioning, that means we’ve given up on finding out what we need to know that we don’t already. And that’s dangerous because the moment we stop learning is the same moment we’ve stopped growing.

Knowing how to ask these questions big and important questions is only the start of a thought-provoking journey you can embark on either professionally or personally.  

What intriguing or interesting questions have you posed, either to yourself or someone else, that has set the bar higher when it comes to leading a successful life? Let us know on our Facebook page. And subscribe to our newsletter for other insightful articles and research.

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