How to Ask Better Questions

by Michael on June 16, 2010 · 0 comments

Weighing heavy on his mind. (Photo by Marco Bellucci)

After the Lakers’ fifth-game loss to Boston, the media gathered in the press room for the usual post-game press conference. A parade of coaches and players marched in and out, highlighted as usual by Kobe Bryant. It was time for the gathered media to think of insightful topics and questions that could draw out the thought processes of an intelligent, seasoned athlete.

Instead, we got this:

Q. “So Kobe, how do you handle a loss? Do you think ‘I did all I could,’ or ‘I could have done more’?”
A. “I forget about it.”

Q. “How confident are you that you can win the next two games at home?”
A. (Sarcastically) “Not confident at all.”

Q. “How do you go about talking to guys keep them from letting it get personal?”
A. “If I have to talk to them they don’t deserve to be champions.”

Essentially, it was a game of “ask a silly question, get a silly answer,” with none of it usable in a game story. A few smart reporters queried Kobe on what he thought was going right (the offense was fine, it was really the Lakers’ D that needed work) and on specific failings and successes, but they were in the minority. And these are reporters who follow basketball day in and day out.

As a writer, one platitude drilled into my head early is, “there are no stupid questions.” However, what this means—or what it should mean—is that the first time you approach a concept it’s perfectly okay to approach it as if you know absolutely nothing. That way you don’t accidentally base your writing on assumptions instead of facts. However, you don’t get to ask stupid questions forever. At some point you’ve got to base your questions on the experience you’ve gained and build on your knowledge, or you risk standing still.

Better Questions for a Better Life

The ability to ask good questions (to yourself as well as others) is critical in business—it can mean the difference between success and failure. It can also help you immensely in your dating life. Some basic rules for asking great questions straddle both worlds and will even help you find your own answers:

  • Ask open-ended questions. Don’t ask yes/no questions, and specifically avoid either/or questions unless the choice is necessary (and that happens far less than you might think).
  • Ask broad questions first, then detail. Learning is like painting: start with background, then fill in the details. For example, a great question for a girl is, “what do you do for pure enjoyment?” After she answers you can ask questions specific to what she does, or how she feels when she does it.
  • Use rephrasing to make sure you understand. If an answer is complex or confusing, rephrase the answer: “what you’re saying is…” After you’re in agreement, you can move forward.
  • Avoid leading questions. Politics is another great example of a large group of people who ask bad questions: any question beginning with “Did you know?” or “Isn’t it true?” is not a question, it’s a veiled statement.
  • Keep questions positive. Avoid challenges, especially in a work environment. Instead of “who failed? or “what’s the problem?” ask, “how could we do this better?”
  • Know your respondent. What questions is he most likely able to answer? Have your questions play to the strengths of the person answering them. Kobe, for instance, is great with the questions on the nuts and bolts of basketball, but not big on the mental aspect of the game.
  • Be curious, but smart. You can indeed get away with asking “stupid questions,” as long as they meet at least one of two criteria: 1) the answer has some importance, 2) you really care about the answer. The real issue with the questions asked of Kobe was that the answers weren’t important at all in the context of the game, and the reporters seemed to ask out of the need to ask something. If they were actually students of the “mental game,” the questions would have demonstrated thoughtful context, and might well have drawn a better response.
  • Be creative, where possible. Psychologist Benjamin Bloom created a learning classification system called Bloom’s Taxonomy, which includes processes for asking questions that can help you to not only get direct answers, but to apply critical thinking and look at broader concepts. It begins with simple, factual questions, then reinforces your understanding and finally enables you to imagine new concepts. I’ll write more on this soon, but for now I’ll offer you more reading here.

With a little application, you can work better with a boss, extract secrets from great men, and draw women to you. Just remember that you can’t have all the answers unless you’ve asked the questions.

0 comments… add one now

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: