Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.

Matthew 7:7-8

Except not every question deserves an answer. Or rather, we can’t always expect a reply after asking one.

Very often, the quality of answers we receive depends on the questions we ask.

How we ask a question – from phrasing to our delivery – matters. If we are aiming to get a good response that satisfies our doubts or clarifies our query, then we need to focus on asking better questions.

Since starting my podcast during COVID, I had a chance to re-examine and think about how to improve the quality of my questions.

I have hosted great, entertaining guests and learned a fair deal from them. These individuals are often experts in their respective domains, with years of experience.

Being a podcast host impressed upon me the importance of managing the flow of conversation not only to engage our listeners but to keep within the time limit.

This was a tricky balancing act.

It’s hard enough to redirect the conversation or even worse, be forced to interrupt the guest just to make sure we stay on track.

Fortunately, I realized that simply by asking the right kind of questions at the start, guests would be more willing to open up, share stories and be authentic in showing their personality. 

You might be wondering: Why does this even matter? 

Remember, this doesn’t just concern professional situations at work. It applies equally well to casual conversations.

You’d be surprised how simply changing the way you ask a question or rephrasing it differently can yield a more effective answer.

Imagine starting a conversation with your significant other. Things have not exactly been smooth sailing in your relationship.

Asking them “What can I do to make things better?” is far more effective than “What’s your problem?”.

Both seek to uncover the underlying issue or source of conflict in your relationship, but the first question sounds much better.

The use of “I” in the first question versus “Your” in the second implicitly shifts the aspect away from placing blame. Instead, it shows your focus on trying to make the other person feel better.

It may not always get you the response you want, but it’s definitely a good start. 

This also applies in reverse.

Picture Rich Franklin, after a devastating loss.

I’m tired, sore, and disappointed that I couldn’t get the win.

My team knows this and they are understandably sensitive to my mental state during this time.

In the aftermath of each fight, whether good or bad, I always like to get my trainers’ reactions and opinions.

If I ask “What did you think?” after a loss, I might receive a milder version of the answer I was actually looking for. Not that my team was lying, they have always been straight with me and I appreciate them.

But, if I really wanted to understand the things I failed at or critical mistakes during the fight, it’s better to ask directly “What would have made the fight go better?”

A Wharton research study showed that people are often tight-lipped during negotiations. But if prompted with the right questions, they were more willing to share and disclose important information.

Participants were tasked with selling an iPod that had previously malfunctioned twice and had lost all the music stored within it.

Researchers analyzed the question and answers between the participants and prospective customers.

Of the three different questions posed to the participants, one resulted in an 89% disclosure rate of the problem.

Take a guess which one:

  1. “What can you tell me about the iPod?”
  2. “It doesn’t have any problems, does it?”
  3. “What problems does it have?”

It might seem counter to our first example in this article, but question 3 actually got the participants to share the real issue with the iPod.

But remember, context matters.

In the first example, we were analysing the conversation in a tense relationship. It’s only natural that the more tactful and thoughtful approach would get a better response and reaction.

However, In this study, we are examining a sales interaction. In such cases, it’s often a matter of each party prioritizing their needs and protecting their interests over the other.

So, asking the question directly “What problems does it have?” immediately presumes there are problems. This made it easier for the sellers to open up and disclose the issues with the iPod.

Despite the context, we know that asking questions in different ways can get people to respond differently. 

Whether it’s with your kids or talking to a stranger, I’m sure some of you have interesting and creative ways of getting the answers you want.

I’d love to pick your brains and learn some strategies.

Do share in the comments. What question did you ask and was the reply good enough for you?