Much of an executive’s workday is spent asking others for information—requesting status updates from a team leader, for example, or questioning a counterpart in a tense negotiation. Yet unlike professionals such as litigators, journalists, and doctors, who are taught how to ask questions as an essential part of their training, few executives think of questioning as a skill that can be honed—or consider how their own answers to questions could make conversations more productive.
That’s a missed opportunity. Questioning is a uniquely powerful tool for unlocking value in organizations: It spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and performance improvement, it builds rapport and trust among team members. And it can mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards.
For some people, questioning comes easily. Their natural inquisitiveness, emotional intelligence, and ability to read people put the ideal question on the tip of their tongue. But most of us don’t ask enough questions, nor do we pose our inquiries in an optimal way.
The good news is that by asking questions, we naturally improve our emotional intelligence, which in turn makes us better questioners—a virtuous cycle. In this article, we draw on insights from behavioral science research to explore how the way we frame questions and choose to answer our counterparts can influence the outcome of conversations. We offer guidance for choosing the best type, tone, sequence, and framing of questions and for deciding what and how much information to share to reap the most benefit from our interactions, not just for ourselves but for our organizations.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Get
“Be a good listener,” Dale Carnegie advised in his 1936 classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. “Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.” More than 80 years later, most people still fail to heed Carnegie’s sage advice. When one of us (Alison) began studying conversations at Harvard Business School several years ago, she quickly arrived at a foundational insight: People don’t ask enough questions. In fact, among the most common complaints people make after having a conversation, such as an interview, a first date, or a work meeting, is “I wish [s/he] had asked me more questions” and “I can’t believe [s/he] didn’t ask me any questions.”
Why do so many of us hold back? There are many reasons. People may be egocentric—eager to impress others with their own thoughts, stories, and ideas (and not even think to ask questions). Perhaps they are apathetic—they don’t care enough to ask, or they anticipate being bored by the answers they’d hear. They may be overconfident in their own knowledge and think they already know the answers (which sometimes they do, but usually not). Or perhaps they worry that they’ll ask the wrong question and be viewed as rude or incompetent. But the biggest inhibitor, in our opinion, is that most people just don’t understand how beneficial good questioning can be. If they did, they would end far fewer sentences with a period—and more with a question mark.
Dating back to the 1970s, research suggests that people have conversations to accomplish some combination of two major goals: information exchange (learning) and impression management (liking). Recent research shows that asking questions achieves both. Alison and Harvard colleagues Karen Huang, Michael Yeomans, Julia Minson, and Francesca Gino scrutinized thousands of natural conversations among participants who were getting to know each other, either in online chats or on in-person speed dates. The researchers told some people to ask many questions (at least nine in 15 minutes) and others to ask very few (no more than four in 15 minutes). In the online chats, the people who were randomly assigned to ask many questions were better liked by their conversation partners and learned more about their partners’ interests. For example, when quizzed about their partners’ preferences for activities such as reading, cooking, and exercising, high question askers were more likely to be able to guess correctly. Among the speed daters, people were more willing to go on a second date with partners who asked more questions. In fact, asking just one more question on each date meant that participants persuaded one additional person (over the course of 20 dates) to go out with them again.
Questions are such powerful tools that they can be beneficial — perhaps particularly so — in circumstances when question asking goes against social norms. For instance, prevailing norms tell us that job candidates are expected to answer questions during interviews. But research by Dan Cable, at the London Business School, and Virginia Kay, at the University of North Carolina, suggests that most people excessively self-promote during job interviews. And when interviewees focus on selling themselves, they are likely to forget to ask questions—about the interviewer, the organization, the work—that would make the interviewer feel more engaged and more apt to view the candidate favorably and could help the candidate predict whether the job would provide satisfying work. For job candidates, asking questions such as “What am I not asking you that I should?” can signal competence, build rapport, and unlock key pieces of information about the position. Most people don’t grasp that asking a lot of questions unlocks learning and improves interpersonal bonding.
The New Socratic Method
The first step in becoming a better questioner is simply to ask more questions. Of course, the sheer number of questions is not the only factor that influences the quality of a conversation: The type, tone, sequence, and framing also matter.
Favor follow-up questions.
Not all questions are created equal. Alison’s research, using human coding and machine learning, revealed four types of questions: introductory questions (“How are you?”), mirror questions (“I’m fine. How are you?”), full-switch questions (ones that change the topic entirely), and follow-up questions (ones that solicit more information). Although each type is abundant in natural conversation, follow-up questions seem to have special power. They signal to your conversation partner that you are listening, care, and want to know more. People interacting with a partner who asks lots of follow-up questions tend to feel respected and heard.
An unexpected benefit of follow-up questions is that they don’t require much thought or preparation—indeed, they seem to come naturally to interlocutors.
Know when to keep questions open-ended.
No one likes to feel interrogated—and some types of questions can force answerers into a yes-or-no corner. Open-ended questions can counteract that effect and thus can be particularly useful in uncovering information or learning something new. Indeed, they are wellsprings of innovation—which is often the result of finding the hidden, unexpected answer that no one has thought of before.
Get the sequence right.
The optimal order of your questions depends on the circumstances. During tense encounters, asking tough questions first, even if it feels socially awkward to do so, can make your conversational partner more willing to open up. Leslie and her coauthors found that people are more willing to reveal sensitive information when questions are asked in a decreasing order of intrusiveness. Of course, if the first question is too sensitive, you run the risk of offending your counterpart. So it’s a delicate balance, to be sure. If the goal is to build relationships, the opposite approach—opening with less sensitive questions and escalating slowly—seems to be most effective.
Use the right tone.
People are more forthcoming when you ask questions in a casual way, rather than in a buttoned-up, official tone. People also tend to be more forthcoming when given an escape hatch or “out” in a conversation. For example, if they are told that they can change their answers at any point, they tend to open up more—even though they rarely end up making changes. This might explain why teams and groups find brainstorming sessions so productive. In a whiteboard setting, where anything can be erased and judgment is suspended, people are more likely to answer questions honestly and say things they otherwise might not. Of course, there will be times when an off-the-cuff approach is inappropriate. But in general, an overly formal tone is likely to inhibit people’s willingness to share information.