The Art of Asking Good Questions (and When to Avoid Binary Ones)

Can you recall when somebody asked you a question that made you really think and maybe even change your behaviour?

I can share with you one of my experiences.

While I was a novice in stock investments, I was only focusing on how my stocks were performing. A good friend of mine kept asking me ‘How did the market do today?’ As a result, I started paying attention to the market too.

Formulating good questions can be a powerful tool to help people increase their awareness. It is a more effective way of coaching people because they have to find the answers themselves (with some gentle guidance).

Asking good questions is more difficult that it sounds. Open-ended questions are usually more effective for complex matters (these are the ones that they need a full explanation and cannot be answered with a single word – for example ‘what are the key reasons for this growth?’ Or ‘What are the main learnings from the project?’).

The reason is pretty simple; when topics are complex, we cannot expect that the solutions can be forced into simple yes/no, good/bad or in favour/against answers.

However, this is exactly what happens in many discussions around us.

We often experience that binary questions (these are the questions that have only 2 possible answers) are asked to address pretty complicated matters. For example; Are you in favour of globalisations or against?

Trying to answer these topics with a simple yes/no answer deprives us of the opportunity to have meaningful discussions, understand other people’s perspectives and find tailored solutions.

To give an example, the question about being in favour of/against globalisation can be rephrased into ‘What are the pros and cons of globalisation? What are the effects of globalisation that you have personally experienced? What do you think are the unintended consequences of globalisation and what can be done to address them? Who benefits from globalisation? Who doesn’t? How can we mitigate the negative consequences? etc).

When we phrase the questions in an open-ended manner, we invite other parties to move away from a summary (and frequently emotional) position, break down the issue in smaller blocks and attempt to address each one at a time.

By the way, binary questions can sometimes be useful too (especially when talking to kids because they are forced to pick one option e.g. do you prefer pasta or pizza tonight?). But they should be better avoided when situations are more complex and the answers are not black or white but shades of grey.

[Note that referenda ask binary questions for very complex topics. Hence, it is even more important to have a meaningful debate beforehand. Elections can also be considered binary especially in the countries where there is a two-party electorate system.].

Why you need to care: In the polarised world we live, it will be useful to avoid binary questions. By asking open-ended questions, we might have better chances to understand each other’s perspective, become aware of possible blind spots and find common ground.

I started the b4iapply blog because I passionately believe in empowering people to make informed decisions about their career, their finances and other societal topics that affect all of us directly or indirectly. I only share my views and I aim to be balanced, constructive and solution-oriented.

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