How to Ask Good Questions?

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” Voltaire

Are you one of those who are afraid of what someone will think if you ask a question during the meetings or after listening to a thought provoking lecture? Do not worry-you are not alone. More than 95 % people fall in this category. It takes a lot of courage and practice to ask a question which is challenging but answerable involving critical thinking. To help you in making an expert in asking good questions, here are some tips, some dos and some don’ts.

The Home Work:

Before you ask the question, do your homework

  • Research the Topic and the Speaker: There are more than 99% chances that you have got intimation about the topic and the speaker well in time to do some basic research about the both. Not to embarrass the speaker or impress the audience about the breadth and depth of your knowledge but to know what you do not know. Deciding beforehand the likely information you require from the speaker will help you in appropriately formatting the question you’re asking. Normally there are four types of questions asked from a public speaker
    • Clarification: Speaker is politely requested to clarify or explain in a bit more detail about any point he has made in his main discourse
    • Analytical: the speaker is supposed to analyse a situation and come up with his opinion-why we should or shouldn’t support the Clash of Civilisation thesis of Huntington
    • Compare/Contrast: He is asked to compare or contrast two different propositions and give his view point -End of History vs Clash of Civilisation
    • Relationship: or cause or effect type of question-causes of fall of Roman empire/consequences of the crusades on socioeconomic conditions pf Europe
  • Use Tin-opener to ask a Question: Try to ask Open-ended questions starting with Tin Openers i.e., Why, what, when How etc. Open-ended questions force the speaker to dig deep and answer your question and provide much more information. As opposed to above using helping verbs such as is, are, do etc., often result in yes or no answer or incomplete information. Technically even this question can result in yes/no answer-do you believe in the End of History thesis of Francis Fukuyama? Instead ask, “Why do you believe in the End of History thesis when all his assumptions turned out to be invalid?
  • Write down your Question: Always write down your question on a neat piece of paper in legible writing. If you were unable to pose that question, you can hand over this pieces of paper with your name and email clearly written on it for his online response later.
  • Keep the Context in View: Ask the right question to the right person at the right time. Do not ask a social scientist to answer you the mechanics of a nuclear bomb. Yes, you can ask him the social, economic and political effects of dropping an atomic bomb
  • Be Concise but Clear– When you ask a question, be clear to yourself- what you want an answer -facts and figures? Expert opinion? Once you know what kind of information you need and who to ask, you must ask your questions in a manner that gets the best possible information in response. Politically correct questions are now in; be careful to slander someone, name anyone in a derogatory way. Rather avoid mentioning anyone else by name in your question unless it is a public domain issue i. e Why do you agree with the End of History thesis of Francis Fukuyama?  

The Format:

When your turn comes to ask the question, keep the following procedure

Starting the Question: First thank the speaker for a very thought provoking lecture and appreciate one or two good points he has made in the lecture. Then pick up the point you think needs further probing and make your statement which could be your own or someone else point of view which is different from the one the speaker has pointed out in his speech (acknowledgement due if he is well-known person or say, “according to another speaker who spoke about this issue a few days ago”). Then request the speaker to elaborate his point of view using proper English with a reasonable vocabulary and good grammar.

Ending the Question: When you have finished your question, let the person answer it in full. Don’t interrupt the speaker when he is speaking. No way. Besides being rude, it will stop his train of thought. Even when you think you are not getting the answer, be patient. However, if the person has long strayed from the topic, then of course you need to interrupt. Be as polite as possible when doing it. If you think the speaker has missed an important point, do not intervene until he has finished talking. Maybe he has not gotten to his full answer yet or he may be waiting to get to that part of the answer because there is other information you have to understand first.

Ask for clarification when you need it. If the answer he has given is not clear to you, don’t be too embarrassed to ask for further clarification. This will help keep further problems from arising because you did not get all the information you needed.

Avoid making Speaker Uncomfortable. Do call a spade a spade, but do not throw the spade towards the speaker. If you find the speaker is beginning to feel uncomfortable, do not press the issues unless you are questioning in a professional capacity as a journalist, senator, or lawyer.

The Question:

Coming to the meat of the question, here are some suggestions to formulate your question

  • Challenge the Facts/Figure: Listen carefully and if you find any facts or figure which per your best information are not true, point them out in your question in a very polite way-
  • “Sir, the figure you quoted in your speech about the GDP of country X looks to me slightly different from what I read in a newspaper/book yesterday while I was preparing for your lecture. Can you please indicate the source of your information?”
  • Challenge the Assumptions. Every speaker makes a statement based on certain assumptions whether he explicitly mentions it or not. And this is the weakest point of anyone-including you also. Find out what is he assuming and ask him to come up with justification for that assumption. Remember it is the validity and relevance of any assumption upon which the whole edifice of an argument is based. If you can prove that the underlying assumptions of the speaker are neither valid nor relevant, you have made a score.
  • Challenge its Technical Feasibility: If the speaker has suggested some proposal or plan of action, question its technical feasibility. Is the project feasible within the limits of current technology? Does the technology exist at all? Is it available within given resource constraints? Manpower, finances, software and hardware? Necessary technical expertise?
  • Challenge its Financial Viability: Ideally all the projects proposed by the speaker should be self-financing which is a guarantee for their long-term sustainability. Few of the questions you should ask are;
    • How much investment is required for the proposed project/programme?
    • At what level the project will break even?
    • How much profit will it be making? If in loss, what will be its quantum and how to cover it?
    • Are the assumptions made in the proposed projections supported by realistic assessment of objective realities?
    • Are there any variables to which the project is most sensitive? What will be the effects of any changes in these variables?
  • Challenge its Economic Benefits: Of course, not all projects could be self-financing, particularly if they are meant for social welfare. Challenge him to show that if a proposed project is not financially viable, is it economically beneficial to most people, directly as well as indirectly. Motorways are never financially viable but their socio –economic spinoffs justify their construction in terms of costs-benefits ratio which is the most frequently used method for evaluating the effectiveness of a new project.
  • Challenge its Social Acceptance: Normally a proposal should be in harmony with the social norms and values of a society. Challenge him if the proposal he has made in the lecture conflicts with the accepted norms. For example, allowing gambling as a source of generating revenue in country where it is religiously forbidden or socially unacceptable, is not a good proposal. However, there are times when a policy must be formulated to change these very social norms such as child marriage, bonded labour etc.
  • Challenge its Political Expediency: Success or failure of any proposal depends a lot on the level and intensity of commitment of the elected representatives and the amount of consensus developed among the stakeholders for its execution. Challenge him if you think the proposal made by by him is impracticable in the face of its opposition by the political elite of the country. Ask him to suggest remedies to overcome this handicap.
  • Challenge its Environmental Sustainability: Challenge him whether the proposal he has made is environmental compliant i. e., conforming to environmental laws, regulations, standards and other requirements. Generally pushed by the global entities, eenvironmental issues are now part and parcel of all policies. Do ask him how he intends to deal with the environmental issues and more specifically, whether practicable mitigation and adaptation measures have been suggested to tackle these issues.

The Extras:

Keep these tips in mind when asking the question

  • Use Jargon, Intelligently. Jargons impress the knowledgeable but are detested by the lay person for obvious reasons. First check the composition of the audience as your question and its answer will become the part of the lecture and discourse. Feel free to use the jargon where people are familiar with it but do not use it as a weapon of mass communication.
  • Be Specific: Try to be as specific as you can and make sure to ask about what you want to ask about. If you do not feel comfortable with the response or feel that it does not respond to what you have asked, proceed gently by asking how they know this information. Ask what the general trend is that would short cut a path to that knowledge, meaning that you are seeking the tools to answer the questions yourself from this point onwards.
  • Keep the question simple. Don’t ramble or explain anything more than what is needed to understand your problem and answer the question. Extra information can be distracting and may cause you to get an answer for an entirely different question that what you wanted to ask, if the person you’re asking misunderstands your purpose.
  • Sound confident. Sound confident when you ask. Don’t be apologetic or self-deprecating. This will make you seem like you are more intelligent and make someone less likely to judge you on what you’re asking. This is more important in some situations than in others. If you’re asking a teacher a question, don’t worry about this. If you’re asking a question in a job interview, however, it’s probably a good idea.
  • Don’t use filler language. Filler language is language like “erm”, ”um”, “uh“, “ah”, “em”, “like”, etc. These are words you put in a sentence while you’re looking for the next word you want to use. Most people do it completely unconsciously. Use as little filler language as possible if you want to appear more intelligent, and want your question to seem more well-thought-out.
  • Never ask a question in an aggressive manner. This indicates that you are only asking the question to prove to the other person that you are right and they are wrong meaning that you are argumentative and not open-minded. Ask because you are genuinely interested. Otherwise, you will receive a defensive and less than helpful response.

Conclusions

The most stupid question is the one which is in one’s mind but never asked. You shouldn’t be ashamed to be asking a question at the right time. The longer you put off asking, the more difficult your problem may become. There is always a first time for everything. Just get started asking questions. Your skills will improve over time

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