Want better outcomes? Ask better questions

I'll admit it! I have a question obsession. And if I had to narrow down when it started, I’d say it began as a survival technique. As a minister’s kid, my family and I moved to new churches and schools every two to three years. This led to lots of up-the-front-of-church introductions and bail-ups from inquisitive congregants and classmates. A natural introvert, I hated being centre stage and could not imagine what might possibly interest anyone about my life. Asking questions was a way of shifting attention away from me and on to others.

In the process, I became a good listener. Taking notice of each answer often sparked my curiosity about something else and I found I could relax into a conversation, leading it through a variety of topics that were both interesting and revealing. It was a perfect training ground for my work today, but it’s also a technique I still fall back on in social situations. I've had more people laugh and tell me: “I can’t believe we’ve just had that conversation!” than I should really admit to. Fortunately for them (but not for me), unless I write notes, these details do not take up permanent residence in my mind.


Good questioning techniques are not just for writers, detectives, and shy little girls wanting to steer the attention away from themselves. Everyone could benefit from asking better questions, says Frank Sesno, journalist and author of Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change.

Take a moment to think about this.

At home: Do you need more information from your teenage daughter than she’s willing to give you? Are you trying to to influence your son’s behaviour without resorting to another lecture? Are you trying to find the best way to talk about something important with your partner while improving your relationship instead of damaging it?

At work: Do you want to get people on board with a new idea or get to the bottom of issues with employees or clients? Do you want to get past the typical defensive responses? Would it help to know when something went wrong, how long it’s been a problem and what someone has already done to try and fix it?

In social situations: Would it benefit you to understand another person’s thinking? Would it make a difference to you if you understood why a person thought and acted the way they did? Are you wishing you knew a way to bridge those awful social and political divides that separate us?

In his book, Sesno identifies eleven categories of questions that link to specific outcomes. However, he also states that if we simply put more thought into the outcome we wanted to achieve, we’d do much better. Before deciding what kind of questions to ask your subject, first ask yourself some questions: What do I want out of this? Am I trying to end up with a better understanding? Am I trying to connect more deeply with this person? Am I challenging them and holding them to account?


Sesno suggests another way of getting closer to reaching our desired outcome. Turn your fullstops and exclamation marks into question marks. Instead of saying ‘You have no right to be upset about that!’ try ‘I noticed you’re upset, can you tell me why?’ By asking about another person’s experience, we psychologically remove the need to keep them at bay and it gives us greater insight into what might be influencing their’s (and our own) decision making.

Good questioning leads to truth telling, greater understanding and better relationships. It helps you identify problems and make better, strategic decisions. It lead to greater cooperation and creative thinking. When we ask good, open ended questions, people are more likely to be more open, less defensive, and less secretive. By first listening to others, we build a stronger basis upon which to express our own views.


Sesno also says that when you decide to ask questions as a way of achieving specific outcomes, you should speak no more than about 30 percent of the time.

“What I would like to change if I could is this familiar terms we use — ‘Q&A’,” he says. “I’d change it to ‘Q&L’. It’s not just question and answer, because that implies that I’m going to ask you a question and then you’re going to give me an answer, and then I’m going to move on. If it’s really Q&L, I’m going to ask you a question and then I’m really going to listen. I want to know what you’re saying and use that as a springboard to deeper understanding, to deeper knowledge, to a deeper purpose."


Whether work or personal life, we can’t fix a problem unless we face it. Equally, discounting the truth after we've discovered it will only mean that we lose more ground than we’ve made up.

Sesno says, “If you want to confront a problem, you have to go looking for it and not avert your eyes when you find it.”

He suggests maintaining what he calls ‘intimate distance’. This really amounts to being totally present but maintaining enough distance to listen but not judge. This mindset helped me when I was interviewing a friend about the pain she'd endured in the process of coming out to her conservative Christian family and church in her mid 20s. I found myself in two places at once: wanting to interrupt so I could apologise profusely for not being there for her, and paying tribute to her story as she described sliding down the wall in her tiny one-bedroom apartment and weeping because she couldn’t think of a single person to call. To tell her story and her truth, she needed to be free from my defensiveness and guilt. (Of course, I also apologised to her afterwards.)

So, why ask better questions?

Why listen and let go of the control about what might be said? Better questioning requires openness, vulnerability, forethought and a willingness to hear things you don’t want to hear. Better questioning is not always easy, but it always offers great rewards.

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