by Marc Anderson

The Basics of Good Questioning Skills – Knowing Who, What, Where, When, Why and How to Ask

London tourist woman on Europe travel sightseeing holding map by Big Ben and red double decker bus. Tourism people concept with mixed race Asian girl smiling happy, Westminster Bridge, London, England

Some of you might have seen the 1975 Monty Python film The Holy Grail where King Arthur and his knights embark on a search for the Grail and encounter many silly obstacles. There is a scene where the troll asks questions to those seeking the Holy Grail.

There are a series of questions shown in this scene.  Some questions are easier to answer than others. Some questions are not answered. Some questions even have a change of mind.

There are questions that trigger you to ask a question in return or to clarify the original question. There are questions that involve a simple answer. There are questions that are asked to get your opinion.

There are questions asked to see how much you know. There are all sorts of questions. There are all sorts of spoken English.

Who we ask questions to, what we ask, where we ask, when we ask, why we ask, and how we ask are all basics of good questioning skills. Let’s first look at this short film clip to better understand some of these basics.

Who – We engage in conversations with family, friends, relatives, acquaintances, other students or employees, employers, and so on. There is no limit to who we might ask questions of during any given day or by whom someone might ask us questions. He/she might be someone in a face-to-face conversation or someone on the phone or online. Questions can even be asked to a group of people as in a lecture or class situation.

What – We ask different types of questions.  Closed-ended questions usually demand a short answer of a couple of words like in the movie (e.g., What is your name? What is your purpose? What is your favorite color?) These questions are linear and are designed to gain specific information from a person usually for a specific reason. These types of questions seldom stimulate a conversation to grow.

On the other hand, open-ended questions are questions that encourage you to elaborate and explain. (For example, if the troll were to ask, Why do you want to discover the Holy Grail? Or, Why is a certain color your favorite?) Usually the person who is asked this type of question feels as if you are generally interested in finding out more. So these types of questions help extend the conversation and help to make the conversation more meaningful.

Where/When – There are all sorts of situations like job interviews or social groups you find interesting… You can practice your questioning skills each day in various situations. You will gain more confidence along the way and more English fluency. Learning to ask questions and how to ask them will become a habit. Asking the right types of questions will engage people. Asking the right types of questions will allow you to succeed in your goals whether it is to just to strike up a casual conversation, make a new friend, get a date, secure an interview or job, inquire about something on the phone, learn something new or to get something clarified, etc.

Why – To participate, to learn, to relate… The person asking the questions can direct the conversation to an area or purpose they are interested in.

For example, if you ask a question about a person’s job, then you can follow-up with another question in an area that you would like to get more information about for any reason. You might just want to get to know the person better, or you might have always had a certain question you wanted answered and you feel this person can answer that, or you might want to get the person’s opinion for whatever reason. There are lots of reasons to ask questions. There are lots of reasons to listen.

Francis Bacon (an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, orator and author 1561-1626) believes questions are an important tool to learning. He states that “…who questions much shall learn much and retain much.” Perhaps you feel the same way. Do you know someone who asks lots of questions? Do you know anyone who is really inquisitive and always wants to learn more?

Lou Holtz (a retired American football coach, and active sportscaster, author, and motivational speaker) adds “…I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.” I believe that young children do the same thing. They continuously ask questions to learn things.

How – You can build conversation by taking any answer to a closed-ended question and asking something further. You can do the same thing with an open-ended question. It is important to be a good listener, to allow the speaker to respond without being interrupted, and to look at the person talking. It is also important to let the person speaking have enough space to talk to they do not feel that you are crowding their physical space.

In fact, some of the best and most natural conversations are those where the listener is genuinely interested in what is being said. Therefore, it is important to ask questions that you are have an interest in. Also it is important to ask questions that the other person seems to care to talk about.

It is not a good idea to bombard the person with too many open-ended questions so the conversation becomes exhausting. It is also a good idea to move beyond typical questions that are broad and routine like “How are you?” or “What have you been up to lately?” Try inviting opinions, thoughts and feelings. Encourage participation of that person and include others in the conversation.  Don’t monopolize. Establish rapport. Stimulate discussion.

Who we ask questions to, what we ask, where we ask, when we ask, why we ask, and how we ask are all basics of good questioning skills.

You have undoubtedly asked questions in your native language without giving them much thought. They come naturally in your everyday speech throughout your daily life, whether at work, school and home. As an ESL speaker, you can consciously apply the appropriate type of questioning in English to gain the information or response that you need more effectively if you make a deliberate effort.

People generally like to be asked questions if you show that you are an attentive, caring listener and that you have a purpose in asking. Don’t you?

Your body language and tone of voice play an important role in the answers you get when you ask questions. Wouldn’t you agree?

If you present yourself in a positive manner that is inviting, open and caring, the responses you get and the relationship(s) you form will be more positive. If you set yourself up as being cold, uninterested, uncaring, distant or threatening, then the types of responses will be a reaction to this demeanor.

What now? How to develop good questioning skills and propel your English forward?

Now comes the practice time.

  • You could set a goal of yourself to ask questions to so many people each day or in so many situations.
  • You could ask questions to your friends and they can critique your skills.
  • You can write a series of questions in a notebook or on flashcards and select so many of these to ask each day.
  • Or you could practice asking these questions in your head.
  • Another suggestion is to pay attention to the types of questions that you hear other people ask in any day to day situations.
  • You can also hear the types of questions that are asked in movies and videos.
  • You can read questions that are asked in written text.

Each of these suggestions will help you in formulating answers to questions that begin in the same way. Soon you will be able to differentiate questions and answers that begin with “Why….” from those that begin with “When” or “How”, etc. This skill if very important so you answer appropriately to any question asked. This differentiating skill is particularly important in a job interview or a more formal situation, but also in situations where you work as a team on a school or work project or engage in conversation with your employer, etc. You will be able to retrieve the words you want to use more quickly, too, and answer more confidently and fluently.

Looking back at the movie clip…

You might have smiled or even laughed when you watched the Monty Python movie clip. I know that I did. But, in reality, there were some things from the movie clip that involved “poor questioning techniques”.

For example, the rapid fire question approach is probably never a good way to go unless you are a detective wanting to dig for information or to solve a case. Or a lawyer who is asking questions to a witness in court. Also, when you ask a question, it is a good idea to allow some wait time for the person to answer. A few second is a good suggestion. This will make the person feel more at ease.

In addition, if someone changes their answer to a question that is asked (e.g., as in the case of asking their favorite color in the movie) there really is no need to “punish” for a change of mind. Likewise, it is not a good idea to ask and demand answers that may be too difficult. Don’t get me wrong. It is okay to ask a difficult question now and then, if your purpose is genuine, like to gather information or knowledge about something because you are really interested in knowing this. But if you just want to “show off” or “stump” the person, or even to “punish” the person – then this type of questioning should be avoided.

Also it is perfectly fine for someone to say that they don’t know the answer or they don’t have an opinion. It is even perfectly okay that they might say that they are not interested in talking any more on a certain topic or that they will talk about it later, etc.

Okay, what other types of questions should be avoided?

In many western cultures, it is not really acceptable to ask a woman her age. Also it is not polite to ask about someone’s weight or their earnings/investments/financial status unless they bring it up. It is not polite to ask someone directly about their marital status or other personal aspects that would be better off kept to themselves (for example, grades in school, driving records – tickets, etc. – cost of certain items that were purchased, relationship information, etc.) However, if you are talking to a close friend or someone in your family, then some of these areas might be okay to talk about, especially if that person brings it up and invites your input, etc. The best advice to offer you is that if you are wondering if something is appropriate to ask or not, then it is best to error on the side of not asking. That means this area is off limits. End of discussion.

How to “buy time” and respond to conversation through questioning?

As an ESL speaker it might be difficult for you to come up with questions at first, especially if the person you are speaking with talks quickly or does not speak too long (i.e. in shorter sentences which does not allow you much time to generate a question) and you have yet to formulate a question. You could always ask something by simply stating a fact like “That’s interesting. Could you tell me more about ___?” or “That’s interesting. Could you explain why you ___?”  By having some of these questions that could be adapted and used in any situation rehearsed and memorized, you will be all set to engage and extend conversations.

Again, watch how native speakers engage in conversation. Listen to their questioning techniques. Watch their body language. Try to imitate the positive examples you see. These tips might just help you to develop the basics of good questioning skills.  You know…   who we ask questions to, what we ask, where we ask, when we ask, why we ask, and how we ask.

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I invite you to write to me using the comments section in the space below. Ask me any questions you might have regarding learning English, ESL instruction, and about our online English programs. I will be happy to answer.  I wish you all the best on your path to learn English.

About the author:

Marc Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of TalktoCanada. Since founding the company in 2006, he has grown it to over 25 staff with operations in 50 countries. Marc spends his time outside of TalktoCanada travelling, playing with his son and working on new business projects.