Have you ever thought about how questions and answers can actually make conversations more productive?

Asking good questions is a powerful tool that many of us overlook. A lot of the work we do relies on asking good questions: it stimulates learning and the exchange of ideas, fuels performance improvement, and builds rapport among team members. Although asking good questions comes naturally to some people, anyone can learn the skill.

By asking questions, we improve our emotional intelligence, which makes us better questioners too — a virtuous cycle. Obviously, there is no perfect recipe and most of your approach should depend on the dynamic interaction you have with the person sitting in front of you.

Here are four guidelines to start asking questions, based on compiled research by Harvard Business Review:

  1. Start by listening. Dale Carnegie, the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, advised, "Be a good listener. Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering." Funny enough, more than 80 years later, most people still fail to take his advice. You cannot ask good questions if you don't listen to what the person has to say.
  2. Use the right wording. Keep your questions open ended if you want honest opinions and accurate information. Let the person have the option of giving you an answer you did not expect. Avoid leading questions and refrain hinting at your opinion — use a neutral tone instead.
  3. Know your purpose. Genuinely try to know more about the person you are talking to, but keep a mental framework of your questions. However, keep the first tip in mind when asking questions.
  4. Ask the tough questions first. Interestingly, asking tough questions first, even when it feels socially awkward, can make your conversational partner more willing to open up. Of course, do not offend your counterpart, but strike a delicate balance between sensitive and non-intrusive. This effect actually has a name: the relationship closeness induction.

Albert Einstein famously said, "Question everything." Good questions and answers are the bridge to more effective interactions and obtaining novel information. Stay curious and mindful of the joy of asking (and answering) questions.

What are your thoughts on the science of asking questions? Let me know in the comments below!