How to ask questions?

Marta Aleksandrowicz-Wojtyna16 grudnia 2018


“What does the fox say?” is a dilemma most fur owners have no answer to.

“To be or not to be?” is always an exciting choice, whether you are a Danish prince or not.

“How to lose a guy in 10 days?” has served me a lot of perfectly effective tips.

“How now, brown cow?”, unbelievably, is repeated in the English Institute at least 100 times a day.

“How to look good naked?” might need a pretty, if censorable, illustration.

We ask questions all the time. Politicians ask questions, scientists ask questions, students and teachers, too. For some reason, though, it seems that we hardly know how to do that properly. We are strangely anxious when asking – as if it showed our weakness or knowledge deficits. Well, it perhaps does. My grandma always says: “One must live and learn… but still dies a stupid one”. Still, there’s no choice. If you are brave enough, and you ask questions, you will surely make mistakes. Over the period of the next few weeks, I would like to explain how to avoid trouble with questions and how to make them your best effective tool.


What can you do to ask questions properly, then?

First of all, empathize with the addressee.

Questions are always part of a power game. They are both about the one who asks and about the one who answers. Pick any political talk-show and think of how belligerent the participants tend to get just because a question leads towards a wrong subject. Why? Are they in real trouble? Does an evil spirit take over? Or do they, perhaps, have no idea what to say? The reason is simpler than that: responsibility. Whether the theme of the conversation is clearly related to the recipients or not, they always bear responsibility for delivering a response. It’s on them. Think of how much of a burden that might be. How stressful, how pressurizing it can get not to have an answer ready! Or to misunderstand the context the question is asked in.

A skilled conversationalist has been on the other side and will know that a good question facilitates communication. A good question builds on the recipient’s strengths, it gives her a hand and opens new channels for thought. It empowers and encourages an answer, rather than enforces a ready hypothesis.


Do you know any effective prompts that could help you win this power game? Sobel and Panas in their Powerful Questionssuggest that “Can you tell me more?” is your best choice when a strong vivid talk is needed. “It is to conversations what fresh-baked bread with soft creamery butter is to a meal”, they claim. Surprised? I’ve told you it was going to be simple. Plus, there are at least 3 reasons to appreciate this superb question.

  1. It manifests our interest, shows enthusiasm and allows speakers to feel unique, important and encouraged. By investing in their trust and self-appreciation, we invest in our promising relationship. Return on this investment is not only emotional, but also communicative: feeling encouraged, they will drop inhibitions and will surely say more.
  2. It gives us time– to obtain more input, to settle in the context, to observe the speaker, to check how detailed they are with their answers, how they react to our focus. And, finally, it gives us time to prepare a response. And it takes a bit to prepare these cannons, doesn’t it?
  3. It encourages profundityby suggesting there’s more to the subject than meets the eye. This is a real winner: insight, observation, and insistent focus on value encourage trust more than anything else does. In our language trainings, asking “Can you tell me more?” is also a practical way of building language muscle – by focusing lesson time on the student rather than on the teacher.

Sobel and Panas provide an extensive list of questions that boost the empathy effect in a similar way:

  • Tell me, how are you?
  • Can you say more about that? What’s going on?
  • What do you mean when you say you’re feeling…?
  • Why do you think that happened?
  • How did you feel about that? […]
  • Do you feel that was the right thing to do? Or, do you think that was the right response?
  • It seems like there are really two different issues going on here, is that right? It seems like you feel stuck between a rock and a hard place… Is that right?
  • What are you thinking of doing? What do you think your options are?
  • I had a very similar experience. Can I share with you?
  • Is there anything I can do that would be helpful?”

Source: Sobel A., Panas J., Powerful Questions, 2012, p. 192–193.

Of course, you can use some other convo phrases starting with Wh- (When? What? How? Why?). If you develop a good repertoire of such questions, you can make yourself a proper communication ninja – remaining in the shadows, perfectly attentive, and managing the power game skilfully, ready to act when needed. If after talking to you somebody feels the smartest person in the whole universe, you can be sure that your mission was a success – that you have effectively empathized and have built trust.

How do you like that? Want some more? In further articles, I will address the following crazy questions about questions:

  1. How do use open-ended questions?
  2. How to cause thinking rather than answering?
  3. How to really want answers?
  4. To cause thinking rather than answers.
  5. How to use proper intonation?

At Language Extreme, we waste no words. Do we love communication? What a question!


Text by Monika Szczepańska, English Language Teacher at Language Extreme

How to ask questions?