8 Ways to Improve a Question

8WaysImproveQuestionHow do you improve a question? I’m sure there are many potential answers to that, but in thinking about it, I came up with these eight ways to take an existing question and make it better:

1BallOpen it up. If you want something more than a yes or no answer, take a closed question and open it up by starting the question with words like What, Why, or How. So instead of asking Have things changed since last year?, better to ask: How have things changed since last year?

2ball2Close it down. There are times, however, when closing a question (so that it elicits a simple “yes or no” answer) can help you identify a built-in faulty assumption. Before spending too much time wondering, Why are we having this problem?, you may want to ask: Is it a problem?

3BallSharpen it. Precise questions will tend to yield better answers. Instead of “How will current changes in the market affect us?” better to ask, “How will the rise of e-commerce in the market affect us?”

4BallAdd a ‘Why’ to it. I’m a big believer in getting to the “question behind the question,” and that means asking not only about “What,” but also the “Why” behind the “What.” So instead of just asking, “What trend are you most concerned about?” ask “What trend are you most concerned about—and why?”

5BallSoften it. Questions can be confrontational. It can help to add a softening phrase at the beginning, one that indicates the question is based on genuine interest, not criticism. So instead of, “Why are you doing it that way?” ask, “I’m curious to know: why are you doing it that way?”

6BallNeutralize it. By this I mean, make sure the question is neutral—with no agenda, no attempt to lead someone to a desired answer. Leading questions may work for prosecutors and interrogators, but generally should be avoided. Terrible leading question: “Isn’t this new regulation a problem?” Slightly better: “Is the new regulation a problem?” Better still: “What do you think of the new regulation?”

7ballSmarten it up. People worry that if they ask questions at work it may make them seem uninformed. One way to deal with that is to do some homework on a particular question, before you ask that question. Then, word your question in a way that shows you’ve given this issue some thought. “I’ve been doing some research on X, and I’m wondering, How might our organization explore ways to use X to our advantage?”

8BallSimplify it. I’m a big believer in asking fundamental questions—even if they might seem naïve. “Why are we in this business?” “What business are we really in?” “How do we define success?” These questions must be asked from time to time for purposes of clarity. Understand that if you ask fundamental questions all the time, you may drive your colleagues crazy. But every once in a while, it’s good to take a sophisticated, complex question and think about how to break it down to something much more basic.

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About the Author

Innovation expert and questionologist Warren Berger has studied hundreds of the world’s foremost innovators, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers to learn how they ask questions, generate original ideas, and solve problems. He is the author or co-author of 12 books, including his three books on questioning: A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas; its follow-up THE BOOK OF BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead; and BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS IN THE CLASSROOM: Transforming Classrooms Into Cultures of Curiosity and Inquiry. Warren’s writing has appeared in Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, and The New York Times, and he writes the “Questionologist” blog for Psychology Today. He lives in Mount Kisco, New York. Follow him on Twitter at @GlimmerGuy and subscribe to his blog posts

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  1. Zahid Naseem says:

    This is really a great tip as I have been struggling always to make my question better and wondering how to do it, It appears my question has been answered here


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