How to Ask Questions

December 2, 2012 - Get free updates of new posts here

Ever wonder how to ask questions to get what you want? If you ask the right questions you’ll get better answers. For example,

How’s your day?

What response do you generally get from that question?

“Fine” “Good” “Ok”

Now, what if I asked you:

What did you have for lunch?

See, a bit different.

The person will tell you about their salad and then how the waiter was super nice. Then that can escalate into a deeper conversation about hobbies, etc…

The point I’ve realized lately is that just by tweaking my questions I can get so much better responses.

Think of it like your next meal, which question is easier to answer:

  • What do you want to eat?
  • How do you feel about eating at that Japanese place for lunch?

Of course the second one is easier. The real thing though is WHY???

People are already going through 1000s of decisions everyday. What’s for breakfast, what am I going to wear today, why isn’t the heater working, etc…

If you can ask questions that reduce thinking and make thinking EASIER for others you’ll get better responses to what you ask.

If you write a cold email to someone, make it easy for them to respond.

Here’s a recent one example of how to ask a question. While buying a car…

Original: Is there a warranty included?

Improved: What is the warranty of the car?

Notice the difference. Instead of hoping there may or may not be a warranty I’m assuming there is a warranty for getting the car.

As well, some questions don’t add any value to you or the person responding. Such as:

  • Ever ask someone who has a broken leg, oh did you hurt yourself?
  • Ever notice that you say, really, after someone said their statement. What, they are going to change it again now.
  • Ever say to someone, why are you upset? They say they aren’t but it puts them in a defensive mode.

So why bother asking them? Great question! Don’t!

Here’s more examples:

Original: Do you need help with anything?

This questions response is more a yes / no from the person.

Improved: What can I help with?

This is saying you will help and the question is more about, what specifically. It helps the recipient pinpoint something for you to do vs considering if they want you involved in the first place.

Aggressive: Should I stop doing this?

I like this. Instead of hoping they have something, start and ask for forgiveness :)

Next time you are asking questions:

1- Do you really want / care to know the answer?

2- How can you reframe it so you get a better response?

Leave a comment and tell me did you ask a good question today?

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25 responses to “How to Ask Questions

  1. Roshan Reply

    especially useful when dealing with people / users / customers who are unsure.

    Do you like XYZ? Vs.

    What do you think of XYZ?
    Do you think XYZ is any better than ABC?

    and so on.

  2. Michael Halpin Reply

    Hey Noah,

    Just found your website and it”s terrific. Insightful and relevant topics that I have already put to use on the elevator today asking someone what they had for lunch instead of how they were. Much better response.

    I met you a couple of weeks ago in NY at Michael Ellsburg’s event BlowYourMind2012. We spoke briefly and you curiously asked me why I was at the seminar but during our conversation you recommended a book that you said was catered to females that you found interesting and helpful. Do you remember the title?

    We also spoke about people needing a “why” to become motivated. I think you would enjoy the book “The Power of Why” by Simon Sinek. I heard him speak at an EO conference in Houston and was very impressed. You can find him on Ted talking about some of the ideas we discussed during our short talk.

    I missed your presentation on Sunday unfortunately because I had to get to the airport but you mentioned you were going to be a little irreverent to the audience. Not sure if I got that right but I would enjoy hearing how it went and some of the topics you covered.

    Great to meet you and thanks for the abundance of ideas on your site.

  3. Lubna Gem Arielle Reply

    Hi Noah

    Something witty. OK – got that part over.

    I see questions as Magic Wands (hook shaped ones ??) – and you’ve pin-pointed the essential ingredient for casting a strong spell – it’s the question you raise …
    “Will it reduce the amount of thinking?”

    … allowing a delicious balance between getting a sullen Yes/No at one end of the spectrum to causing irritation by being irritatingly open-ended.

    I like it a lot. Hurrah new tool – thank you!

    Best wishes
    Lubna

  4. Jack Reply

    Good points. Get to the point and, basically, stop wasting your (and their) time. Plus, most communication is non-verbal so, usually you can see if a person needs help or not (maybe they look confused) and so you already know the answer: Yes, they need help dummy. And even if you asked “do you need help?” they will likely say no, just to be polite or because their ego gets in the way.

    I also like your point about the question “why are you upset?” It is clear that you already noticed that they are upset and that they are likely not in the mood to explain why. If you really want to help just take action and start helping them or, even better, just listen to them and give them a HUG.

    I tried to think of a witty question for you to ponder regarding this post, but I think you pretty much nailed it :)
    Thanks for the great points

  5. Derek Reply

    The “magic wand” comment reminded me of another question that’s very useful in a sales context:

    “If I could wave a magic wand and make all your problems go away, what would that look like?”

    It’s good because instead of focusing on your product, it focuses on the pain the customer is experience. Then you can present your product in the context of that pain instead of just rattling off features and benefits.

  6. Ben Reply

    Closed questions provoke single word or short responses.

    Example: Did you have a good day?

    Open questions encourage people to elaborate.

    Example: What did you do today?

    The question is do you want to take the thought process away from the person or encourage them to think.

  7. The Heasman Reply

    Perfect!

    I need to use this more.

    Currently just like Derek, instead of asking “how are you?” I usually go specific like “What’s been awesome about today?”

    If there face drops and grimaces, I step in and actually asked what’s happened during their day. If they light up and share something cool that happened, then that gets good conversation flowing.

    Of course it doesn’t always work… but nothing’s perfect.

  8. Martha Reply

    Questions can be powerful invitations to share happiness :)

    “It’s time for bed little calf, little calf
    Tell me today what made you laugh?”
    Time for Bed, Mem Fox & Jane Dyer

  9. Virgil Reply

    a question i like a lot.
    is opposite to the idea in your article, because instead of simple answer, bring me a truth one.

    instead of asking my customers in the pre-contract stade
    “what do you like to try from my proposals”
    i ask them
    “what is your main competitor do”

    7/10 of them dont know what their competitor is doing.
    10/10 answer what they really want to try, but are afraid to answer it in case of first question.

    Hope is helpful

  10. Kevin Reply

    Nice post Noah!

    Stupid questions tend to be answered with stupid answers.

    I like the “Magic wand” analogy and use it quite often to direct where we (i.e. me and whoever) need to be directing our attention towards.

    Most questions outside of life & death ones do best when framed in ways that require more than a one word answer (yes/no) response.

    I hate stupid questions (though I probably ask way too many myself).

  11. Dave Collins Reply

    Hi Noah,

    We met briefly at the Business of Software conference. You made quite an impression on me, and I’m British, so that doesn’t usually happen.

    You asked me how my week was, and when I said that it had been a good one, you asked me why.

    We went from small to interesting talk in the space of 2-3 seconds.

    Your blog is great – I hope I get the chance to meet you again some day.

    Keep doing what you do.

  12. Hoo Kang Reply

    Excellent article Noah!

    I’ve ben trying to implement this in my life.

    However, it’s easy to forget to implementing actively until it becomes a habit.

    Thank you for getting me back on track.

  13. Mark Reply

    Hi Noah,

    I ‘m glad to see this post over from Startup Digest. It reminded me that sometimes I ask question, hoping to get answer when I actually don’t want one (something like the “Do you need help?” / “What can I help?” example).

    While i think this idea of tweaking the question to be easy for others to answer, i also wonder if this make the questions “leading” (i.e: you are trying to guide the person to a specific answer rather than waiting for whatever to come out). In uni, we are told lots of time not to make leading questions when it comes to seeking objective answers (like in a survey). What do you think about this? :)

  14. Sandra Rand Reply

    I selfishly love how productive this will make more of the conversations I have.

    Penelope Trunk once suggested that you ask in a job interview, “Do you have any reservations about me?” I love putting that out there. It immediately gives you a pulse on the person you’re speaking with and gives you the chance to squash any misconceptions. Or, gives you something to work on for next time.

  15. gerard Reply

    Anyone with school-age kids knows this already :)

    Original: “What did you do in school today?”

    Answer: “Nothing.”

    Improved: “What did you talk about at lunch?” “What did you do in practice?” “What was your favorite part about today?”

  16. John Fox Reply

    There’s no better way to demonstrate your expertise than by asking the right questions at the right time. Answers can be memorized. Questions require real thinking.

    It’s all about asking the right questions, isn’t it?

    I recently published a book with 99 Questions, just on the topic of Channel Partners. Not a very sexy topic, I know, but on balance, there’s not much competition, either ;)

  17. Steven P Reply

    My personal favourite, is stolen from the late Elizabeth the Queen Mother, at social functions she would invariably ask “what’s been keeping you busy lately?” That gives the other person the chance to talk about the kids, work, a book or what ever they want.

  18. Shri Reply

    This is very practical and I have started to out to use about 12-18 months back. It has accelerated sales cycles. By asking questions and doing a little more due diligence, you can lead others to more action orientation. Results may not be favorable all the time but you will quickly know what pursuits are dead ends and refocus attention and energies towards those with legs. Often it has also helped with turning around a unfavorable situation through removal of the fog.