Why Asking Questions Is Important (+Useful Techniques)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Advice Trap" by Michael Bungay Stanier. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is asking questions important in communication? How can you ask better questions?

According to leadership expert Michael Bungay Stanier, asking questions is important in all forms of communication because it helps you to avoid the advice-giving trap. In his book The Advice Trap, he explains the benefits of asking questions versus the drawbacks of offering suggestions.

Read on to learn why asking questions is important, including Stanier’s tips for asking better questions.

The Importance of Asking Questions

Michael Bungay Stanier argues that when you learn to approach difficult conversations with questions instead of suggestions, you’ll unlock the full potential of others and relieve yourself of unnecessary burdens. In The Advice Trap, Stanier further explains why asking questions is important and specifies seven questions that can guide you into having productive and efficient communication with others. He also explains how questions can guide your advice-giving.

In this article, we’ll explain why asking questions is important by detailing how they can help you resolve difficult conversations or reach more effective solutions, according to Stanier’s advice.

Which Questions Are Important to Ask?

Stanier’s seven questions can be grouped into four categories, each of which will help you effectively resolve difficult situations where you might be tempted to give advice:

1) Understand the situation: Stanier says it’s important that you begin by asking questions about the other person’s thoughts—“What are you thinking about?” When you ask someone what’s occupying their mind, you let them take the lead as they express their situation. 

Then, ask if there’s anything else. This can prevent key points from slipping through the cracks, and it makes your team member feel supported and valued. 

2) Focus your conversation: Try to identify the main issue you’re dealing with and what your team member’s goal is. It’s important to ask a question like, ”What’s the main challenge you’re facing?” because it allows you to eliminate distracting problems and focus on solving the real obstacle. 

Then, ask your team member what they want to accomplish—their goal—to get a sense of the progress they’re hoping to make.

3) Consider alternative options: You can help your team member understand the options available to them by asking questions like, “If you go with this idea, what are we saying ‘no’ to?” By asking them to consider possible alternatives, you can instill confidence in the actions they’ll be taking.

4) Reflect on the conversation: According to Stanier, you can encourage long-term insights by thinking about your conversation and the next steps. By asking, “How can I support you?” you can provide support in the way most beneficial for both of you. To help your team grow, end on a positive note by identifying what lessons were learned—“What was helpful about our talk?”

Asking Questions for Negotiation

Asking questions for coaching is in many ways similar to asking questions during a negotiation. In both situations, you’re trying to communicate clearly and effectively to arrive at a solution or an understanding with someone else.

Like Stanier, Christopher Voss in Never Split the Difference advocates letting the other person lead the conversation to help you achieve your negotiation goals. In many ways, Stanier’s seven questions of identifying a focus to resolve a specific issue parallel Voss’s advice:

Open-Ended Questions: Voss also advocates using open-ended questions so that the responder can provide useful information for you to understand the situation. He argues this is helpful in the negotiation field to give the other person an impression of control as you guide them toward your desired outcome. Like Stanier, he proposes questions that focus the conversation on the other person like, “What are you hoping to accomplish?” This encourages them to come up with solutions.

Summarizing: As in both the workplace and negotiation situations, you’re looking for a firm commitment. When negotiating, Voss suggests you ask questions that get the other person to say “no,” which will also foster in them a sense of control. This tactic parallels Stanier’s suggestion of considering alternative options. After that, Voss also suggests you summarize what was accomplished during the conversation to establish long-term rapport and understanding.

How to Use Questions to Give Advice

Although Stanier argues that offering advice isn’t always the best solution, he also believes a good leader should know how to give quality advice when it’s needed. He introduces four tips to doing so:

Tip #1: Give simple answers to simple questions—sometimes a straightforward question such as, “What time should I finish this project by?” can be answered with a simple response rather than an in-depth exploration of the situation. In these cases, offering the answer would be the most helpful and supportive thing you can do.

Tip #2: Lessen the pressure—sound less certain about your suggestions or else people might not even question them. Emphasize that your advice isn’t a command, but merely a thought or suggestion, with phrases such as, “This is just one thought I have…” or “I’m not sure if this is something you could consider…”

Tip #3: Be clear—state your advice plainly. Make sure your suggestions are clear and complete.

Tip #4: Summarize—ask questions to gauge how your advice was received, such as, “Did that help you in any way?” Asking for feedback can help you solidify your coaching habits.

Four Categories of Advice

While Stanier’s tips provide suggestions about how to deliver advice, he doesn’t provide much insight into what content your advice should contain for different situations. When someone’s asking for your insights, you can consider the kind of advice they might be looking for. Researchers have identified four different types of advice that can help ensure your advice is valuable and targeted:

1) Discrete—This category of advice mirrors Stanier’s first tip of giving a simple answer to a straightforward question. This type of advice is helpful in situations in which someone is looking for recommendations regarding specific options or courses of action. Someone might ask, “How many people should I collaborate with on this project?”

2) Counsel—When someone’s uncertain of how to navigate a new and unfamiliar situation, they’re probably looking for counseling. The advice they’re hoping for often involves an explanation of the process or how they should approach the situation. An example might be, “How should I negotiate the terms of this contract?” In such situations, Stanier’s advice to be clear would be especially important. 

3) Coaching—This “coaching” form of advice differs from Stanier’s broader usage of the term in that it deals more specifically with someone’s personal skills. Since this type of advice is more personal, Stanier’s tip of lowering your authority is more important here. A person looking for coaching advice might ask, “How can I better communicate with my team?”

4) Mentoring—Someone looking for mentoring advice is often seeking more long-term guidance for personal opportunities. Questions that solicit mentoring advice might sound like, “Should I accept the promotion?” These situations would also call for clarity, like Stanier’s recommendation, and might also be a good time to summarize—to make sure that the long-term advice relationship you’re forming is healthy.

By understanding that different situations might call for different types of advice and applying Stanier’s tips from above, you can ensure that in times when advice truly is called for, your suggestions are valuable and helpful to your team.

Exercise: Focus a Conversation With Questions

We’ve learned why asking questions is important and how it can help us differentiate between a distracting issue and a primary challenge. Now, we can practice applying Stanier’s questions to difficult conversations.

  • Think about a recent time when you had an unproductive conversation with someone. What was the situation? Describe what obstacle(s) made that conversation confusing or even irritating. (For example, was the conversation focused on blaming someone who wasn’t present?)
  • Which of Stanier’s questions could you have asked to have gotten the conversation back on track? (For example, “What’s the main challenge you’re dealing with?”)
  • How do you think asking those questions might have changed the outcome of your conversation?
Why Asking Questions Is Important (+Useful Techniques)

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Michael Bungay Stanier's "The Advice Trap" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Advice Trap summary:

  • Why advice-giving can lead to more problems than solutions
  • Why questions are more beneficial than suggestions
  • How to combat your impulse to give unsolicited advice

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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