I don’t really do new year resolutions, but in the past  I have set myself what we might call ‘learning goals’ each year.

Over the course of last year, for example, I wanted to become better at empathy. Whilst I would conclude that I came short on that one, I have learnt what to do better this year. (And based on my research so far I will also have the opportunity to practice last year’s goal this year, so that’s good.)

For 2019, I want to learn to ask better questions. That is not, becoming better at asking questions, but how to ask better questions.

I believe myself to be pretty curious already, but I want to hone the skill to get to the bottom of things – and faster at that. I’m a new PhD student and impressed at how the clever folks around me (supervisors and other academics) seemingly get to the bottom of a problem directly and instantly. Now three months in and having written my first literature review, I’m also realising that being able to ask the right question early on will save me a lot of time in the long run.

The great thing is that after some initial thinking about how I could go about learning to ask better questions, I’m already remembering all the good advice that I have been given since as long as my undergraduate degree 10 years ago! One of my lecturers (and my then dissertation supervisor; shout-out to Emmanuel Godin at Portsmouth) encouraged me to phrase my dissertation chapters in questions which helps the reader but also myself to stay focused on the task at hand. What question are you trying to address, i.e. why are you writing this chapter. This makes it clear for you and everyone else how your writing fits together and where there might be gaps – at least, that’s what I learnt from this exercise.

I held on to this advice and still do a lot of work in questions (handy tip: a meeting agenda should always be phrased in questions if you’re looking to get the best out of a meeting; and even when you only participate in a meeting I find that it helps in knowing what you want to get out of the meeting and if eventually you/the meeting have been successful: you’ll know when you have the answer to your question(s)). In addition, I learnt about the ‘5 why’ method back when I worked in sustainability trainings, and that’s always a good start to get to the bottom of things too. So for 2019, I guess I need to put this approach better into practice…  Lastly, one of the methods or tactics that I already knew of, which came back to me, is asking ‘How so’ questions. How so goes very much into the direction of the 5 why’s but is potentially more focused on approaches and practice. I imagine it’ll be a good thing to remember when I do my field research.

Why asking better questions?

But what’s the benefit of asking better questions? Well, I already can tell you a couple of things:

Asking good questions improves empathy

And here we come back to my learning goal from last year! Asking questions increases interpersonal liking because of course asking questions is linked to listening (see more on follow-up questions below)! This in turn increases empathy. Good questions also reduce preconceived notions – i.e. bias – because we get more information. In short, asking (good) questions is a virtuous cycle.

In that regard, research tells us that follow-up questions specifically are gold because they signal that we are listening whilst also unlocking more information. Best of all, asking follow-up questions doesn’t require much thought or preparation as they come naturally.

In a similar way, preparation (for answering questions) leads to self-reflection, which is always a good thing and helps growth.

Asking good questions is a life skill

A lot of very valuable life skills (at least in my opinion) are linked to asking questions: sales – as apparently good sales people listen and ask questions thus helping the buyer understand why they need the product/service, and negotiation – knowing what to get out of a negotiation starts with asking questions to yourself and your negotiation partner to determine red lines – are just two examples.

Asking good questions leads to ideas and innovation

Lastly and of course most easily: a good question leads to brilliant ideas, cooperation and more.


There are a couple of other things I already learnt that have less to do with asking good questions than with knowing how to ask questions. But it’s interesting knowledge and I thought I’d share it anyway:

  • Adversarial questions have a particular role to play in conversation too, e.g. in business and negotiations. Closed questions can help us confirm information because it’ll be harder for the answerer to lie by omission. Also, apparently people are less likely to lie if you make a pessimistic assumption and ask them to confirm it.
  • Order of questions: one would expect that in a conversation we become more open if we go from easy and shallow questions to the heavy stuff such as very personal questions (e.g. What’s your biggest regret in life?). Research tells us, however, that apparently the other way around people actually disclose more. Interesting.
  • Tone: a casual and nonchalant tone is better if you want people to open up to you rather than giving assurances (see link to Harvard research above for more on all of these).

How am I going to learn to ask better questions?

So, how does one learn to ask better questions? I’m going to try different routes. And yes, I don’t have a fully developed learning plan – which definitely led to my shortcoming on empathy least year – but I have some places to start:


I’m a reader, so of course I’ll be reading and hopefully practise what I read during my PhD work. I’ve also started to journal to help me reflect on my learning which I will use in this endeavor. To start, I’ve made better questions the theme of my personal book subscription and hope the great team at Heywood Hill will send me some challenging reads. (I’m not worried as their book subscriptions have hit it on the nail in the past.)

Research methods

My next PhD units will be on research methods, so I’ll be keeping an eye out on literature in the broad area. I’m thinking that tactics on semi-structured interviews for example should be a good start…

Right Question Institute

Lastly, there is such a thing as the Right Question Institute (h/t to Susanna Williams for pointing me into their direction). It offers ‘a simple, powerful strategy that builds people’s skills to ask better questions’, which I will explore. I know that they do a lot of their work directly with education institutions, but they also have a lot of resources available on their website.

When starting to think about how I might learn to ask better questions, I’ve also done a short google of TedTalks out there and whilst some are quite shallow and obvious I may say (the advice includes: don’t be afraid, be curious, words matter, be informed, be simple), there were some nudges that might be interesting to waste some time thinking about in relaxed cognition mode, for example: try the obvious question. Although at this point this seems more like interview advice rather than something that really helps me in my quest.

What I’m wondering about

When talking to my bookseller at Heywood Hill and explaining to her what sort of books I’m looking for, I started to wonder about the ‘demarcation line’ (for want of a better description) between good questions and critical thinking. Of course, I anticipate that there isn’t really one let alone one that can be clearly drawn but I’m wondering about the overlap/grey area here. One to have in the back of my mind… 

Call for resources

So, now that I’ve declared why I want to become better at questions and how I propose to go about this, I’m putting out this call to action on ideas and your input. Are there any obvious places to start that I’m missing?

Let me know and join the conversation in the comments!

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *