How to ask the right questions

What is this all about?

If I had a pound for every time my daughter has asked me “why?” I’d be a millionaire.  
It seemed to be one of the first words she learned, and 12 years later, it’s still top of her vocabulary.  Not that I’m complaining (much), because it belies a curiosity and a genuine desire for understanding however, when it forces me explain my sometimes beleaguered adult logic,  it can help me discover a new way of thinking (or to resort to “Because I said so!”).


In the business world – and especially in business development – most of us could do with getting better at asking questions in a childlike manner.  Our research suggests that asking insightful questions is the number one business development skill in professional services.  Why?  Because, by doing it, you’re demonstrating respect to your clients by taking time to learn about their world.  Many of us love the chance to talk about what is important to us, and if you give other people the chance, they will love you for it!  What do you get from it?  A deeper, richer understanding of your client and therefore, a deeper, richer understanding of how you might be able to help them in the future.

Integrity Alert!

Asking great questions is extremely powerful, but only if it’s done with integrity.  Questioning can be manipulative, and if the client feels this is the case, trust will be broken.  Children ask questions because they genuinely want to know.  Be childlike.


Good questioning skills are invaluable in many business environments – recruitment, appraisals, engaging with your team – the ability to ask great questions will help you be seen as an advanced communicator.  In business development, if you do nothing else, ask great questions.


When you are networking – get over the fear of what to say, or how awkward you feel – by asking questions.  When you meet potential clients, explore their world.

When you are offering potential solutions, check that you are on track.  When you are executing the project, ask if it’s going well?  When the project is finished, ask for feedback.


Having said that questioning is a great skill, it is astonishing to see how few people really take time to hone their technique.  This is particularly true of TV interviewers, who are so bad they make me cringe.  If you want advice on how NOT to ask questions, watch most chat shows, sports interviews or news reports.


What do they do wrong?


  • Closed questions – which can be answered with a yes or no.  If you get an uncooperative interviewee, that’s what they’ll answer.  I vividly remember a BBC reporter interviewing Andre Agassi at Wimbledon, and he simply answered yes or no to her rambling, closed questions.  Embarrassing for everyone. Some interviewees might given a little more, but it’s up to the questioner to ask better questions!
  • Leading questions – “do you think that…”  “You must believe that…”
  • Multiple questions – there are so many parts to the question that only one will get answered.
  • “Show-off” questions – all about the interviewer trying to prove his or her knowledge of the subject.


So how should it be done?

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Rudyard Kipling, Just So Stories (for children!)


The key to good, open, exploratory questions is the shorter the better and to start them with a W (and the occasional H).

Remember childlike?  The other thing to keep in mind is TED!

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Throughout my life and career, I can think of some fantastic people who have helped me by asking great questions.  Some have been managers or colleagues, who coached and mentored me.  Some have been friends, who helped me through difficult times by asking questions and helping me move forward.  Some have been potential suppliers who, through skilful questioning, helped me understand my organisation even better; who made me feel I had a potential trusted adviser who could help me address my challenges.  They are memorable because they asked and listened.


My children continue to ask me great questions.  Like “Why can’t we have a dog?’, “What’s for dinner?’ and “How much will you pay me if I clean my room?”.  Maybe they’re getting old enough to learn manipulative questioning!

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