How To Ask The Questions People Want To Answer

January 25, 2018

Wondering what defines a “good” question? Here’s the inside scoop.

“How was your winter holiday?” “What are your resolutions for 2018?” “How are you today?”

Lots of eager ears are awaiting your responses. Or are they? And are you interested in answering those questions?

Questioning is big. From The Right Question Institute to A More Beautiful Question to books like A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas and Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, we are all working on asking better questions.

Questions can open up conversations and they can shut them down in a flash. “Why did you do that?” “How could you have done that better?” “What were you thinking?” These are questions but they diminish the person you are asking the question of. Embedded in these questions is “You were wrong” or “You didn’t do well enough.” Those questions imply fault and judgment.

The questions I like to answer have a few elements embedded in them that open up the conversation, trust in my capacity, and assume that I can reflect and can answer them well. Those types of questions include the following pieces:

  1. The person who is asking the question waits for me to answer. Have you ever answered a question for someone else? “How are you today? Good?” You just answered for the other person before they got a chance to do it themselves! Pausing and waiting for an answer is a sign of respect. Wait time in classrooms for students is a given, but often the adults are more impatient with each other. Adults need space to answer as well. Generous listeners pause.
  2. The person who is asking the question sounds like she is interested in my answer. Tone matters. Michael Grinder and many others in the communication world have spoken about the idea of approachable vs. credible voices. Who wants to answer a question coming from someone who comes across as disinterested just in the asking? There is a happy medium between being too excited (eyebrows too high) and being aloof (drooping at the edges of your mouth). People are more open to answering someone who uses an approachable tone.
  3. The person who is asking the question embeds within the question a trust that the person is capable and imparts that belief in the question itself. The use of an honest and authentic, positive presupposition is masterful question asking at its best. Think about the following questions and consider how the responder would feel being asked a question with this positive belief embedded in the phrasing:
    • Considering you know this area so well, what do you think we should do?
    • What do you make of this?
    • How do you see this moving forward?
    • What are some of the ways you have thought through the next steps of this plan?

If someone asked me these questions in an authentic and interested way, I would feel quite open to offer an opinion. Questions that engage me have an air of possibility embedded in them. “What’s new since we last saw each other?” “What are all the exciting things in your life these past few weeks?”
Questions asked with interest and with space to “hear me into speech” are a gift. Gift someone a great question this week.

Thank you to my colleagues at the Thinking Collaborative and MiraVia for their support of this work.

This post was originally published as the fourth in a new column Jennifer writes for eSchool News. In her column on ‘Personal Development’, Jennifer focuses on tangible takeaways, tools and teachings that all those working in schools can use to develop their leadership. Read more about the column and browse past and future content here.

About Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams considers herself a "voice coach," helping others learn how to best use their voices – be it collaborating on a team, presenting in front of an audience, coaching a colleague and supervising an employee. Jennifer holds a Master's degree in Education from Stanford University and a Bachelor's degree in English from Tufts University. She lives in Palo Alto, California. Jennifer's publications include Having Hard Conversations, The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicating, Collaborating & Creating Community and Hard Conversations Unpacked – the Whos, the Whens and the What Ifs. She has also created a Corwin Press e-course by the same name.

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