A man thinking and wondering in front of a city.

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Why is asking questions important? What are some ways to ask questions without overwhelming your conversation partner?

If people never asked questions, we’d likely never make breakthroughs. On a smaller scale, questions open opportunities for further discussion that’ll teach you more about other people.

Read more about why asking questions is important, from learning new things to avoiding assumptions.

1. Questions Encourage Learning

In A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger explains that asking questions is important because it’s the basis of learning. If your question has a concrete answer—whether it’s as simple as “What’s one plus one?” or as complex as “How does nuclear fission work?”—then you’ll learn something new once you find that answer. 

However, Berger points out that not all questions have straightforward answers. Searching for answers to those more nebulous questions is the basis of creativity. If your question doesn’t have a concrete answer (like, “How can I express my feelings through art?”) or the answer hasn’t been fully discovered yet (such as, “What is dark matter?”) that same curiosity might drive you to create a new painting or make a new scientific breakthrough. 

In fact, Berger says that the questions we ask are often more important than the answers we find. In the modern world, anyone with internet access can find factual answers to just about any question. However, mere facts are useless by themselves; you need to ask the right follow-up questions to find out how to use those facts to your advantage.

For example, suppose you’re a CEO and you want to find out how a competitor is doing. You could get an answer in moments simply by looking up your rival company’s stock price. The more difficult—and more important—question is why the price is what it is. If your rival’s stock prices suddenly jumped or fell, what did the company do recently to cause that change? What could you do to copy its successes or avoid its mistakes? 

2. Questions Open Communication

Conversations can become stale and awkward if you run out of things to talk about. That’s why asking questions is important in conversations—by showing curiosity to your conversation partner, you’re showing interest in an open discussion.

According to The Fine Art of Small Talk by Debra Fine, a conversation flows best when you create opportunities for your partner to share details you can explore more deeply. Therefore, you must ask your conversational partner open-ended questions that demand more than a one-word answer. Show interest and encourage them to talk about themselves: The more your partner gives you, Fine says, the more you’ll have to talk about later.

If your question elicits a one-word answer, ask another open-ended question. For example:

  • Person A: “How was your vacation?”
  • Person B: “Great!”
  • Person A: “I’m glad to hear it! Did you do anything particularly exciting?”
  • Person B: “Well, my brother and I went water skiing at the lake. We…”

However, Fine includes a caveat to this recommendation: Don’t push topics your partner doesn’t seem willing to engage in. You’re not here to interrogate them: Let them decide how much they’re comfortable saying. If they give a short answer and then steer the conversation elsewhere, Fine recommends you respect that and join them in the direction they’ve chosen. 

How to Follow Up on Cues With Additional Questions

Another way to keep conversations going is to follow up with additional open-ended questions. This is where Fine’s recommendation that you show interest in your partner’s answers yields fruit: When you pay attention to their responses, you’ll notice interesting details you can use to deepen the conversation.

You can choose follow-up questions based on any of the following:

1. Anything they’ve mentioned so far—did anything about their previous answers intrigue or interest you? Did they seem particularly proud of anything they brought up?

2. Things they’re wearing, particularly those that denote group membership.

3. Their achievements, trophies, and ornaments, especially those they display prominently.

4. The location or occasion. When all else fails, you can always ask someone what brings them here, who they know and how they met them, or how they’re feeling about the event.

5. Their behavior, traits, or quirks. Fine suggests that the way someone speaks or writes can offer you opportunities for small talk—but be careful; it’s easy to offend someone this way. For example, don’t ask someone who seems to speak with a foreign accent “Where are you really from?” Maybe they’re from the city you’re in and only picked up the accent from their parents.

3. Questions Can Win Negotiations

Another reason why asking questions is important is because they can help you win a negotiation, especially in a business setting. In Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss and Tahl Raz note that as a good negotiator, your goal is to give your counterpart the illusion of control and lead them to your preferred outcome (while letting them think it’s their idea). 

But how do you make them think they’re in the driver’s seat? Voss says you do this by asking open-ended “how” or “what” questions. These kinds of questions ask the other person for help in coming up with solutions, which gets them to start seeing the situation from your point of view. It’s the first step in dissolving the confrontational, win-lose dynamic that too many negotiations naturally fall into. 

For example, if you’re confronted with a price that’s too high or an unreasonably low offer, respond with a simple, “How can I do that?” These straightforward, yet seemingly innocuous questions can be the golden key in a negotiation

Voss recommends other good open-ended questions like, “How do you expect me to be able to follow through on that?” or “What are you hoping to accomplish?” Voss notes that these “how” or “what” questions are different from more accusatory questions that begin with more loaded words like “why.” “Why” can be a very problematic word in negotiations, warns Voss. “Why” puts the onus on your counterpart, shines a light on them, and makes them feel like they’re in the hot seat—which takes them out of their comfort zone and into a place where they’re no longer in control. This is exactly where Voss says you don’t want them to be.  

For example, think of the enormously different emotional weight between a non-open-ended “why” question like “Why would you say that?” and an open-ended “what” question like “What makes you say that?” The former is accusatory and borderline hostile; the latter is empathetic, welcoming of insight, and devoid of any emotional sting.

Put Them to Work for You

According to Voss, the main reason why asking questions is important is that they put your counterpart to work helping you. When you ask an open-ended “how” or “what” question, you’re putting the other person in a position where they’re providing solutions to your problems. In doing so, you’re leading them along to the conclusion that you want them to reach—all the while convincing them that your desired solution is their idea. 

This also helps with the implementation of the decision. Your counterpart will buy into it and commit to it because they’ll think they came up with it. In this scenario, they’re the teacher and you’re the student. This gives them a powerful feeling of being in charge. But you’re really in control as the listener, because they’re giving you the information you need.

Voss writes that open-ended questions also prompt longer answers from your counterpart—which, in turn, reveal key information. Your counterpart might reveal what they really desire out of a negotiation or what a potential dealbreaker might be. They might also reveal the challenges they face in actually delivering on the terms you’re negotiating (like, for example, a salesperson whose boss won’t allow them to sell you an item for under a certain amount). 

4. Questions Build Relationships

No magic equation of compatibility guarantees that you and your partner will stay together. However, there’s a tried and true way to make sure your relationship grows stronger over time. Relationships last when both people support the evolution and growth of their partner, as individuals and as a couple. The authors of Eight Dates argue that to support each other’s growth, you and your partner need to set aside time to continue learning about each other through intentional conversation and open-ended questions. 

While there are many ways to learn about your partner, the authors advocate for the power of a weekly date night. They define a date as a designated time that you get together with your partner to connect, talk, and learn more about one another (watching Netflix on the couch together doesn’t count).

The Eight Dates Questions

 Consider asking the following questions based on the purpose of the date:

  1. Trust. The goal of this date is to understand your partner’s beliefs about trust and discuss how you can deepen trust in your relationship.
    • What did you learn about trust growing up? How do you define trust now?
    • Where do we agree on issues of trust? Where do we disagree?
    • How can we strengthen trust in our relationship? What do you need from me?
  2. Disagreements. The goal of this date is to learn how your partner manages disagreements and how you can manage disagreements more effectively as a couple.
    • What did you learn about conflict or managing conflict growing up? How have you navigated conflict in the past?
    • What are your beliefs about anger? What do you need when you’re feeling angry?
    • How would you like to manage conflict differently in the future?
  3. Sex. The goal of this date is to learn more about what turns your partner on and to discuss how to keep your relationship passionate.
    • What do you like?
    • When and how do you like to initiate sex?
    • What can I do to improve our sex life?
  4. Finances. The goal of this date is to better understand your and your partner’s relationship to money and discuss how to build a healthy financial future together.
    • What did you learn about money growing up?
    • What makes you anxious when it comes to money?
    • What do you hope for your (and our) financial future?
  5. Family. The goal of this date is to understand what family looks like for you and your partner. 
    • What challenges can we anticipate when we bring kids into our family?
    • How do you imagine me as a parent? Where do you think I’ll thrive as a parent?
    • What qualities of ours do we hope to instill in our children?
  6. Play. The goal of this date is to find out what you like to do for fun and what your partner likes to do for fun and to explore how you can have fun together.
    • What’s the most fun you’ve ever had? Share a personal experience and an experience you’ve shared with your partner.
    • What’s on your bucket list?
    • What can we do to make our relationship more fun?
  7. Change.  The goal of this date is to acknowledge how you and your partner have changed in your relationship and to discuss shared traditions that will keep you connected as you continue to change in the future. 
    • Describe ways in which you’ve grown that you’re most proud of.
    • How do you prioritize your personal growth? How can I support you?
    • What traditions are important for us to establish even as our relationship continues to grow and change?
  8. Aspirations. The goal of this date is to share your greatest aspirations with your partner and learn about their aspirations so you can better support each other.
    • Do you have any aspirations you’ve let go of that you regret?
    • Describe an aspiration that’s important to you. Why is it important? What would it feel like if you fulfilled this goal?
    • What do you need from me to pursue your greatest aspiration?

5. Questions Avoid Assumptions

When you spend too much time thinking about what others think about you, it’s common to assume the worst. If you don’t check into it, you can’t know how others feel, and you run the risk of acting based on how you think they feel rather than how they actually feel. That’s why asking questions is important in a space where you can’t quite read the room. Jack Canfield’s book The Success Principles says to check in with the person you’re wondering about so you can learn the facts and act accordingly. By asking them a question, you may find out their behavior has nothing to do with you.

For example, during one of Canfield’s seminars, he could see a participant whose body language indicated he wasn’t enjoying himself: The participant had his arms crossed and a displeased expression. Canfield approached him during the first break to check in. He explained what he saw and asked if there was anything he could do to improve the presentation. The participant replied that he was greatly enjoying the presentation but was feeling under the weather, and it was taking all of his energy to concentrate. Canfield felt proud of himself for checking in with the man and not letting himself be consumed for the whole presentation by whether the participant was enjoying himself.

Checking in can also help set clear expectations for the future. For example, instead of assuming your coworker knows when you expect them to turn in their report, ask them directly for verbal confirmation that they’re okay with the specific deadline you have in mind.

6. Questions Advance Your Career

The Success Principles also says asking questions is important because it can help you succeed in your career and achieve your goals in two ways:

  1. You learn what you need to know and establish guidelines in the beginning. Companies that discuss expectations and how challenges will be dealt with at the beginning of a project or partnership will be more capable of tackling challenges that arise. For example, if you start doing business with a new company, creating guidelines on how you’ll resolve conflicts at the outset will help you handle the conflict rather than facing the stress of both the conflict and not having a procedure to resolve it.
  2. You learn the rules and how to use them to your advantage. In certain situations, you might think you should avoid asking questions so you appear competent. But it’s better to ask them and work confidently with the answers rather than operating without clarity. For example, entrepreneur and investor Tim Ferriss had experience in wrestling when he decided to attempt to win the national kickboxing championship with just six weeks to train. He investigated the rules to determine how he might play to his strengths. He learned that in addition to winning a round if you knock your opponent out, you can also win by throwing them out of the ring twice in a round. He asked his coach to focus his training on learning to throw opponents out of the ring, using his existing athletic strengths. By not assuming he had to knock people out to win, Ferriss found a way to win a game he had little experience with.

Final Words

Asking questions is an important skill to have in life. It helps you attain knowledge and build connections with others. So don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and ask the questions nobody else is willing to speak up on.

What are other reasons why asking questions is important? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

Why Asking Questions Is Important: 6 Reasons to Be Curious

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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