Why you should ask more questions (even if you think you know everything).

If you’ve ever spent more than five minutes with a toddler, you’ve probably noticed their favorite word is, “Why?” Every time you think you’ve given a thoroughly satisfying answer they pelt you with another string of queries, pushing themselves to understand as much as they can. They’re so new to the world that everything is both infinitely fascinating and naggingly confusing, which means they need to ask questions. After all, knowledge is survival, and the quickest way to gain knowledge is to ask lots and lots of questions. But as we grow older many of us lose that curiosity. We believe we have it all figured out. Consequently we stop wondering, and we become perfectly content to draw empty conclusions like “That’s just the way it is.”

The advantages of thinking like a child

Kids don’t seem to be as prone to assuming they know everything as we adults are. They take the time to puzzle over issues and don’t dismiss ideas for being too outlandish. They’re also not embarrassed to ask questions, nor are they afraid of looking ignorant for doing so. Adults have much to gain by re-adopting this approach. Being open to new ideas and recognizing that there’s always more to learn vastly improves our ability to make informed decisions in both professional and personal situations. We’re more receptive to new opportunities and innovations when we’re inquisitive, which makes us more likely to solve problems and achieve breakthroughs. In fact, not asking questions is like wearing blinders; our judgement is impaired because we’re unable to see the bigger picture.

Formulating great questions is an art

The saying “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” is true, but objectively speaking some questions are more useful than others. If you’re wondering how to ask deeper, more relevant, and more practical questions, keep the following in mind.

  • Open-ended questions promise more insight. Have you ever asked a question expecting a juicy, detailed response, only to get a simple “yes” or “no”? It’s probably because your question wasn’t open-ended. Closed-ended questions have a binary element to them and therefore don’t need to be expanded upon. To gather as much information as possible, ask questions that contain one of the five Ws (who, what, when, where, why) or how.

    Example: Instead of asking “Do you like French bulldogs?” try “What is your favorite breed of dog?” or “Why don’t you like cats?”
  • Let questions beget more questions. Like a child, if you craft a nicely open-ended question, chances are you’ll get an answer that prompts further queries. This is especially true if you’re trying to address a complex issue, such as solving a design challenge or tackling a wicked problem. However, the value of follow-up questions isn’t limited to professional settings; they’re also great for keeping conversation flowing in social interactions. (Just try not to be too nosy!)

    Example 1: Suppose you ask your coworker “What are your thoughts on this proposal?” Whatever their response, you can likely follow up with “What else might you suggest?” or “When would you be ready to present?”

    Example 2: Rather than asking your friend “Did you have a good weekend?”, you can rephrase it as an open-ended question (“What did you get up to this weekend?”) and continue with “Where is that restaurant?” or “Who did you go with?”

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Also published on Medium.