Four Ways to Ask Effective Questions

"A prudent question is one-half of wisdom."  - Francis Bacon

Effective questions
Effective questions

I was browsing my daughter's homework recently when I found the math worksheet shown below.

In case you're reading this on your phone, the picture shows a word problem that describes the weight of three different animals followed by multiple choices to see if the student can order the animals by their size.

Fair enough.

However, since students are now operating under the nationwide "Common Core" initiative (I hope this includes pilates!), it isn't enough to circle the correct answer, you now have to "explain" your thinking.  The goal is to cross-train students to be both analytical AND articulate.  Unfortunately, the person writing the worksheet wasn't entirely precise in framing the question (for at least one fourth-grader).

Again, here's the exchange for those with a small screen:

Worksheet writer:   Explain why you made the choice you did in problem 5. My earnest fourth-grader:  I looked at the amounts and figured out that it was C.

If the question had asked "How did you use the animal's weight to the answer the question?" or "How do you know your answer is correct?" perhaps the explanation would have been more on point.

The principle at work is classic: imprecise, vague questions can lead to equally imprecise and vague answers.

I don't want to be overly critical of the worksheet writer, especially since much of the time I ask L-A-M-E questions myself.  Do any of these habits seep in when you talk to your spouse, kids, or colleagues?  Or am I the only one using a tired approach?

Grand Canyon Questions

How was your day? What did you do in school? How did the meeting go?

Grand Canyon questions are impressive because of their broad, sweeping nature.  They are vast and the goal of the "asker" is to catch anything (or everything?) possible.  Unfortunately, what comes back is usually an echo.

Battleship Questions

Was work ok? Did you have fun at school? Have you almost finished the chart for the project?

When faced with narrow, yes/no questions instead of hearing an echo,  people give little snip-its, which may or may not hit a target.  (F10? MISS!)  Narrow inquires are rarely any better than broad ones.

Gladys Kravitz Questions

What did you eat for lunch today? What did you talk about on the bus with your friend? When will you change that Comic Sans typeface?

For those of you that don't know Gladys Kravitz, she is a notoriously nosy neighbor on the old TV show, Bewitched.  Nobody liked being around Gladys; she drove everyone crazy with her need to know everything.  When you make inquiries into the little details in someone's life, most people shut down, rather than open up.

The good news is, there are solutions for asking more effective questions.  None of the approaches are revolutionary.  However, if you're like me, remembering the basics is always a good idea.

  1. Spend time considering your questions - Do you REALLY want to know if someone had a "good" day (and what qualifies as "good" anyhow?) or would you rather know if they are coming home feeling as if the day was productive (or not)?  Would you rather know about someone's tasks or do you need to know if they require your input?  Do your kids see your questions coming from a mile away?  If they do, think of something different to ask. Bottom line -  Don't expect the person you're talking with to be more thoughtful in their answers than YOU are in your questions.
  2. Be creative -  Do you want to learn new things? Then ask different questions.  Don't settle for "How was your day?" when you have the chance to ask, "Did anything make you laugh today?" Why bother saying, "How did the meeting go?" when you can ask, "Did you learn anything from the meeting?"
  3. Pay attention to the answers - Don't ask questions to be polite, ask because you're interested and then pay attention to the answer. People pick up on this, and if you're paying attention, they're more likely to share more.
  4. Ask follow-up questions - Don't just ask A question, but keep the conversation going with follow-up questions.  Better still, ask the follow-up questions the next time you see them.  THE most effective question EVER is one that demonstrates not only that you remember a person, but that you care.

What are YOUR most effective ways of asking questions?