No question about it

Asking questions is hard

Last thursday morning I spent mostly asking people questions. It reminded me of the time I had to pass exams. Only now I was on the other side of the table. The easy side of the table. Asking questions is a lot easier than answering them. Or is it?

I certainly don’t find it easy to ask good questions. The other people asking questions struggled too.

What makes a good question?

That’s a good question to start with: It’s short and relatively open. Let’s see a few attributes of good questions:

  • short: come to the point immediately, ask about one aspect at a time. Let the other person do the talking. You can always ask additional questions.
  • open, control, confirm: the 9 boxes interview technique provides a simple guideline for questions. First ask open questions: let the interviewee tell their story. Then, ask control questions to get the facts of the story. Confirm that you understood the interviewee by rephrasing what they told you and asking if that’s what they meant.
  • avoid ‘or’ in control questions: I frequently find myself asking questions like “Is it X or Y or Z or…?”. The enumeration of possibilities limits the options of the interviewee. Trailing off at the end of the sentence makes this question sound weak. A shorter, clearer control question would be “What is it?”.
  • keep an open mind: that’s the most difficult part. To ask open questions, you should have an open mind. Ask the questions as an investigator, like you really want to know the answer. Don’t ‘lead’, don’t expect some answers and keeps asking until they tell you the ‘right’ answer.

How do you recognise a good question? Do you have any tips for me?

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