How to Ask Better Questions

Questions are at the core of a researcher’s work and can be an underappreciated skill. Formulating questions to elicit valid and useful responses is the foundation of every survey, focus group discussion,  interview guide, recruitment screener, and more.  But researchers are not the only professionals who ask questions to gain insights.   

Look around any organization and consider all the questions being asked by: 

  • Department Managers who interview potential employees and evaluate staff 
  • Sales Representatives who query prospects  
  • Purchasing Managers who select and manage vendors 
  • Fundraisers who ask for donations 
  • Marketers who talk with customers to build content 
  • Customer Service staff who resolve problems  

Almost every person in your organization routinely asks questions as part of delivering on your mission and achieving your goals. Do they know the rules of good questioning? 

Keys to asking effective questions. 

Take a cue from research practices and pay attention to these four aspects of effective questioning that apply in almost any situation: what you ask, how you ask, when you ask, and where you ask.  

What you ask.  

The biggest mistakes to avoid are asking leading or biased questions and asking double- barreled questions. Leading questions influence the response.  Instead of asking a customer “what did you value most about our quality service?” you should ask something like “how was your experience with our customer service?”  Keep out any adjectives or phrases that might bias response.

Make sure your questions have a single focus.  When you ask an employee if they receive the resources and feedback they need to improve their job performance, they are being asked to respond to two questions with one response which may not reflect how they feel about each of those aspects. 

Another item to consider is switching up how you ask about a topic. Unless you need to trend a specific question in consecutive surveys, vary the angle of your inquiry.  If you usually ask how satisfied a customer is, ask how likely they are to buy from you the next time they need your product or service. Instead of asking what brands buyers are aware of, ask which brands they would consider if they had a purchase need.

How you ask.    

One of the main characteristics of a question is whether it is direct or indirect. A direct question to an employee would be something like: “Did you get in late today?”  While the indirect version might be, “I heard you came in late today.” Indirect questions are typically embedded in a statement and often elicit more truth than the direct form which can be replied with a simple yes or no which may or may not be true.  

Indirect questions can be helpful when discussing sensitive topics or when questioning people you do not have a relationship with. It is more effective than a series of direct questions which can feel like an interrogation and make people defensive. 

Another how aspect of a question is whether it is open or closed. Closed response questions are answered with a short set answer.  Open-ended ones let the person formulate their own answer and typically surface deeper insights. Think of a sales rep who asks a prospect if they are interested in buying their software versus asking about how the company currently manages its work process. 

An effective method of open questioning often used in education and in focus group discussions is the Socratic method. This usually involves asking a series of probing and clarifying questions to reveal the core beliefs or needs of the person.  Responses are often followed up with questions or requests such as: 

  • Tell me more about that. 
  • What would an example of that look like? 
  • How did you come to have that opinion? 

Ask people to tell a story – they will reveal more than if you ask direct questions – this is used often in HR interviews, for example “Tell me about a time you and a colleague disagreed.”.  Use this approach more in your research.  Instead of asking a customer to give you an NPS or other satisfaction score, invite them to share a story about a time they were highly satisfied or a time when you solved a problem for them. 

In most scenarios, open questions deliver better feedback. Good questions invite discussion and don’t put pressure on participants to answer in a specific way. Remember to give people time to think before responding. 

When you ask.   

Timing is everything, right? If you want to understand customer satisfaction with a particular transaction or experience, you will get the most reliable response close to when it occurred. If you want to understand a customer’s overall satisfaction with your organization or their perceptions of your brand, however, asking the question a few months or year down the road might be more appropriate.  

Also think about the person’s schedule. What time of the day, week, month, or year is better for them to consider your questions thoughtfully or provide a detailed response?  Are there industry studies that come out a certain time each year and might conflict with your effort?

Where you ask. 

The setting in which questions are asked can have a large impact – just think of the terror induced by the idea of being called into the principal’s office.  In research, we try to secure a neutral site or have the participant respond in their own home or business. The goal is to have participants feel safe and comfortable sharing their true thoughts. That is why negotiation meetings are often held off-site.  And why off-site employee retreats tend to open people up. 

Understanding the psychology and science of asking good questions is vital for effective research but it can also benefit your organization in many other ways.