Why Changing the Way You Ask Questions Can Make You More Successful

We’ve always been encouraged to ask questions at our jobs, but a Danish philosopher says we’ve been asking them all wrong.

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/ Getty Images
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/ Getty Images

The questions we ask can shape our perspective, help us learn, and allow us to leverage and enrich our relationships. Whether you’re in a job interview, in school, on a date, or just catching up with an old friend, asking questions can help form connections, as can showing sincere interest in getting answers. But in order to truly optimize our conversations and foster real connection, we may need to change the way we ask, according to Pia Lauritzen, Ph.D., a Danish philosopher who conducts research on the impact of questions. 

“Questions have the power to connect people with each other and with the world they share,” Lauritzen says in a recent TED Talk. “But questions can also separate people — and that feeling of separation is what makes it difficult for us to communicate.” Lauritzen explains that what we ask others can hold us back if we don’t take a moment to think about the person on the other side, and consider their viewpoint. “There’s no such thing as just asking,” she adds. “Every time you ask a question, you’re sharing your perspective on the subject.” 

In Lauritzen’s research, she found that shifting the way you pose your questions can actually make you more successful, and help you better connect with the world around you. Here are a few things to think about before you pose your next question:

Whom you’re asking

When you ask someone else for their opinion on any given topic, it’s important to remember that you’re asking for their opinion — and to vary your sources so you can see the situation from different angles. “The biggest difference [between questions] is not about what,” Lauritzen says. “It’s about who.” When you ask questions knowing that everyone’s experience is different, you can enhance your own perspective by collecting a variety of information, and processing it on your own. “When the ‘who’ is always the same, we end up with the same perspectives dominating the way we think and talk about our problems,” Lauritzen explains. “Other experiences, insights, and ideas get left out in the decisions that shape our world.” By broadening the people we ask and talk to, we learn more.

What others are already asking

When thinking about ways to solve a problem, we often ask questions without thinking about what other people are asking — and in doing so, we limit our own outlook.  “Across the world, leaders make decisions without knowing which questions matter to their employees and citizens,” Lauritzen notes. “The one problem behind every problem that involves human beings is that we don’t listen to each other’s experiences, insights, and ideas.” To better understand this disconnect, think about a leader of an organization who wants to increase productivity across the company. The leader would typically ask colleagues or employees for their suggestions, but what he should do first is listen to the questions workers are already asking one another. If they’re asking each other to slow down or to move deadlines, he can better gauge how to reorganize the company’s workflow, and then ask the questions that make sense to help everyone maximize productivity and reduce stress. Lauritzen says we often miss the important step of listening to what others are asking before we ask our questions.

How you’re positioning yourself

Finally, Lauritzen explains that the way we think about our position as the question-asker can hold us back from fostering meaningful relationships in our lives. “Pay attention to the balance in your relationships,” she suggests. “Whether in the relationships we have with our children, our co-workers, or the people we meet at the doctor’s office, we need to ask ourselves if we’re always the one asking, or always the one answering.” Lauritzen notes that when we position our questions as a two-way street, we give others a more open platform to talk, and share our experiences as well: “Questioning and answering should be like a dance, where we constantly shift position in order for us to connect with each other and the world we share.”

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