Are you a question asker? Or are you a person who doesn’t ask questions because you don’t want to “look dumb”?

Yes, sometimes asking questions can lead small-minded people to think less of us, but asking questions is an important part of the learning process. Whether we are asking questions to learn more about a topic that interests us, whether it’s to learn how to do something or whether it’s to gain information necessary for us to do business with someone, asking questions is part of life—and business.

Asking questions, though, isn’t as simple as it was when we were 6. Just blurting out whatever is on your mind doesn’t always work as well for adults (or even teens) as it does for the littles. Thinking before you speak, especially if you’re asking questions in a professional setting can be critical to getting the kind of response you need and want.

So, how do you ask questions that lead to the answers you are looking for? Here are a few simple steps that will increase your odds of success in the question department.

Do Your Homework

Before your meeting, research as much as you can on your own. Learn all you can about your subject. Find out what your key points are and determine what you really need to know. If you are meeting with someone to interview them or to possibly pitch them on a business deal, do enough preparation to know first if it is a realistic proposition, and second to not waste your time or theirs gathering information that is easily obtainable from other sources.

how to ask questions

Write Down Your Questions—and Your Answers

As you are preparing and researching, questions should naturally come to mind. Write them ALL down. You can filter them later. Never assume that you will remember a question you want to ask. Once you are in your meeting or interview, if additional questions come to mind that aren’t appropriate at that very moment, jot them down. Then, you can focus on what others are saying and not on trying to remember your question.

Bring a notebook to your meeting. Make notes throughout and write down the answers you receive. Never rely on your memory.  Writing down the answers as you receive them will help clarify it in your own mind and help you be more accurate when you are reviewing the meeting later.

Know What Kind of Answers You Need

Going into an interview or meeting, you should know what you are looking for in the way of answers. Are you looking for hard facts? Are you interested in an expert opinion? Is it someone’s position on an issue or their level of interest in something you are hoping to sell that you are looking for? Knowing what you need will help you not only to direct your questions the right way, but also will help you filter through the responses you get to keep you both on track.

Don’t Ask Yes-or-No Questions

Don’t ask questions that can be easily answered with a yes or no. Remember the “Five W’s and an H” from elementary school?  When your questions start with who, what, why, when, where or how, they are more likely to lead to answers longer than one word.

Dig Deeper

If you ask a question and don’t feel you got the answer you needed, don’t be afraid to follow up. Whether it’s rephrasing the question in a different way or simply asking for more information: “why do you feel that way?” or “what makes you think that?” or “how did you come to that conclusion?” can lead to more detailed and insightful answers.

Be Quiet

Once you’ve asked the question, close your mouth and let your subject answer. To be a good asker, you need to learn to value the power of silence. Some people need to think about their answers; others are reluctant to answer. Most people have an innate need to fill the spaces in a conversation and, if you can learn to keep your mouth closed and be patient, your subject will often feel that need and will provide you with the critical piece of information you are seeking. And along with learning to be quiet, learn not to interrupt. Let your subject finish their thought. No matter how eager you are to ask a follow-up question, write the question down and refrain from blurting it out. Not interrupting tells your subject you value what they have to say. It also keeps you from derailing their train of thought and may allow you to get to the information you need more effectively.

Know When to End

Pay attention to the signals your subject is sending out. This is not a police interrogation. If you wear your subject down to the point of irritation or exhaustion, you are far less likely to get the information you need or to get a positive response for a business deal. If your subject is ready to be done and you still need additional information, ask politely if you can follow up at a later time, either in person, by phone or by email. Ending your meeting before you’ve worn out your welcome leaves you in a more favorable light.

Learning to incorporate these simple steps will help you be a more successful questioner. It will make it easier for you to get the information you need and help you to accomplish your goal. And always remember, if you don’t ask, you aren’t likely to get any answers.

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