Tips for Questioning: Asking Questions and Responding to Them

Communication and Skills


Chloe Xu
Director, Australia

Tips for Questioning: Asking Questions and Responding to Them

Questioning is an underrated tool of communication, and people usually don't ask enough questions in conversations. Among various reasons behind the resistance of enquiring, Wood Brooks and John (2018) believe that the biggest one is that most people don't know how beneficial good questioning can be. Research indicates that asking questions can facilitate information exchange and also be useful in impression management, two main goals of most conversations.


How can people become a better questioner? Wood Brooks and John (2018) suggest people pay attention to the type, framing, sequence, tone, and dynamics of their questions as these elements influence the quality of a conversation:
  1. TYPE OF QUESTIONS. In people's natural conversations, there usually have four types of question:
    • Introductory ("What's your name?");
    • Mirror ("I'm alright. How about you?");
    • Full-switch (ones that change the topic entirely); and
    • Follow-up (ones that elicit more information).
    Among them, research shows that follow-up questions have a unique power as they signal to your listener that you are listening actively and want to know more about them. An unexpected benefit of follow-up questions is that they seem to come naturally on the tip of your tongue and don't require much thought or preparation.

  2. QUESTIONS FRAMING. People don't like to feel be cornered while having conversations. In this regards, open-ended questions are more efficient than closed questions in disarming the other conversationalist and uncovering new information as well. A yes-or-no question often runs the dangers of narrowing respondent's options, which leads to a misled or biased answer. Of course, open-ended questions don't always work. If you are negotiating with someone who is highly protective of his/her information, you need to frame your question differently. For example, you would be better to ask "You are going to pull back your investment next year, right?" than "You will continue the investment, right?", as research shows that people are less likely to lie to negative assumption.

  3. SEQUENCE OF QUESTIONS. Conversational goals matters. Whether a conversation is cooperative, competitive, or a bit of both, determines the optimal order of questions. To uncover sensitive information from each other, ask tough questions first, although it feels socially awkward to so so, will make your respondent more willing to answer the questions followed. In contrast, if the goal is to build rapport, open with less sensitive questions and escalate slowly. Besides, as a questioner, you should also understand the relationship between questions that back-to-back. A study indicates that questions asked previously in a conversation can influence the answers to the followed ones.

  4. TONE OF QUESTIONS. Compared to a formal tone, people are more upfront when the questions are rendered casually. The same when people find they have an escape hatch or can "opt-out" in a conversation. People tend to be more forthcoming when they know they can change their answers, even though they usually won't make that change.

  5. CONVERSATION DYNAMICS. One-on-one versus group chatting can be very different in terms of conversational dynamics. In a group setting, an individual's willingness to answer questions can be affected by the presence of others. People also tend to follow others in a group when giving answers. The first few answers to a question usually set the tone on how the rest perceive the same question. See: Abilene Effect.


On the other hand, when you are being asked a question, the only two options you should consider is what to disclose and what to hold back. When you are confronted with a tough question, you can
A. DODGE (~avoid, evade) the question.
B. ANSWER A QUESTION YOU WISH YOU HAD BEEN ASKED. Doing so allows you to hold the information you'd rather keep private but also maintain a rapport with the questioner. Another strategy is
C. DEFLECT (~bend, change direction) a probing question with another question. This approach helps you to switch the topic or lead the conversation in a different direction.

Source: Wood Brooks, A. and John, L. (2018), "The Surprising Power of Questions", HBR, 96(3), pp.60-67.


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