It’s Hard To Ask Good Questions

QuestionsIt’s amazingly hard to ask good questions.

I’ve been in investigative mode over the last month; trying to understand the root cause of a performance issue and also designing a potential new business model. Both projects mean I’ve had to ask a lot of questions. And they also mean I have had to remind myself how to ask questions.

In my experience, the key to asking a good question is to know why you are asking the question. When people ask questions, they do so for one of three reasons:

  • They want a well-reasoned point of view
  • They want an opinion from an expert
  • They want a factually correct answer

That’s right; people don’t always want a factual answer to their questions.

As a result, asking a well-formed question is incredibly important – especially if the answer is a point of view or an opinion. Unfortunately, people usually ask questions which are unintentionally vague. Vague questions produce vague answers.

I had been looking for a memorable way to make the point about ambiguous questions when I re-watched the movie Die Hard with a Vengeance on a recent plane flight. The villain gives the good guys thirty seconds to telephone him on the number “555 plus the answer” or else a bomb will detonate.

The question is the well-known nursery rhyme:

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?

Most people try to multiply the sevens to get to the answer. But, if you look closer, the passage never says the group is travelling to St. Ives. So the answer should be one: the narrator.

But wait. We don’t know if the narrator is traveling alone so perhaps a better answer is at least one.

On the other hand, a plausible answer is zero. The last two lines of the riddle state “kits, cats, sacks, wives … were going to St. Ives?” The narrator isn’t a kits cat, sack, or wife, so shouldn’t count as part of the answer.

Since the nursery rhyme is supposed to be a riddle, it’s intentionally vague. But it makes the point. There is no factually correct answer so you can only have a well-reasoned point of view.

Ask better questions. Or as the French philosopher Voltaire said,

Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.

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9 Responses to It’s Hard To Ask Good Questions

  1. Peter Jacobshagen July 21, 2014 at 3:31 am #

    True, but the more vague the question the more likely it is that the answer will start with “That’s a great question!” because it gives the respondent all the freedom in the world to restate what he/she already said or really wants to say…
    And I think the list of reasons for questions is also missing one bullet point:
    – Person wants to be seen as someone who askes great questions!

  2. Dan Wellers July 21, 2014 at 5:57 am #

    As Pablo Picasso once said about computers; “But they are useless. They can only give you answers”. He was only half right, of course.

  3. Annie Miu Hayward July 28, 2014 at 12:08 pm #

    I have witnessed a 4th reason when people ask questions – to make themselves look smart. Ugh. Intellectual curiosity seems to have been replaced in those instances. But ‘there are no dumb questions’, n’est-ce pas 🙂 And, sometimes I like to say “crap in/crap out” 🙂 Same as “leading the witness” – only asking questions to get answers to support one’s POV. Asking good questions is definitely an art form. Maybe that’s why Barbara Walters got the big bucks, and the big assignments?

  4. shamil August 1, 2014 at 1:52 pm #

    theres a saying in Arabic, that a man is hidden beneath his tongue. Once he speaks, he unleashes treasures of information about himself.

  5. Thomas3996 March 14, 2018 at 9:19 am #

    As important as asking good question is, it is equally important to carefully consider the answers. All of us are influenced by Confirmation Bias, in short, our tendency to confirm our own believes or hypotheses. This can lead to a distortion of reality, as with every tainted answer we go down a predetermined path, potentially confirming an incorrect assumption in the past. To that extend, there is a forth reason to ask a question. The one that is intended to solicit pure and unadulterated data. It is very difficult to separate pure facts from factual opinions, to a large extend driven by how we ask the question, and our own ability to critically consider the answer.


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