Laura Berlinsky-Schine

You knock on your boss’s door, and she tells you to come in. Then you freeze. What if the question you were about to ask makes you look unintelligent? Annoying? Uninformed?

All of us have experienced the feeling that we’ve asked a “dumb” question, and we’ve also heard the cliche “There are no dumb questions.” Is that really true, though? We always want to come off looking our best, and that means asking the right questions, no matter what the context — whether it’s a business meeting, an interview or even a conversation with a friend. Here’s your guide to asking great questions.

7 steps for asking the right questions

So, how do you go about asking the right questions? These steps can get you started.

1. Do your homework.

Some questions require carefully planning, while others may be more impromptu. Either way, make sure you know what your goals for asking the question are and that you’ve gathered as much information as possible. If you have the time, try to research the topic beforehand to avoid asking questions with obvious answers; you’ll appear uninformed if you could have easily Googled it.

2. Ask questions to which you really want the answer.

There are some situations in which you feel like you have to ask a question, such as an interview. Even in these cases, you should only ask if you actually want the information. If you don’t really care either way, it will be obvious to the askee.

3. Ask open-ended questions.

Rather than sticking to questions with yes or no answers, try to ask ones that require the responder to elaborate. In a meeting, for example, rather than asking “Will X accomplish this goal?” try “How will X accomplish this goal?” Keep the six Ws in mind as a guide: who, what, when, where, why and how.

4. Don’t ramble.

When you’re nervous, it’s tempting to keep talking. Don’t. Stop at the end of the question. This can be difficult, so if you know you have the tendency to keep going when you’re on the spot, it can help to practice asking your question or even just asking questions in general with someone you trust and feel comfortable with beforehand.

5. Let the responder answer.

Another common habit is interrupting the answer to a question you’ve posed. This is harmful to both of you: you’re not getting the information you want, and she thinks you don’t care enough about what she’s saying to let her answer in full. Instead, wait until the person has completely answered the question. That means letting her pause without jumping in and waiting for that longer pause that indicates that she’s done speaking.

6. Be confident.

Starting off your question with “This is probably a stupid question, but…” or “Sorry to bother you…” will put the other person in that same mindset — thinking that this could be a stupid or bothersome question. Instead, project confidence. You don’t need filler words or other language that projects weakness. Own what you’re saying and asking.

7. Become comfortable with pauses.

Silence is your friend. After you ask a question, accept that there will be a pause, and rather than trying to fill that silences by adding additional words or rambling, just wait. Be comfortable with the natural pauses in the other person’s response, too.

How do you ask an intelligent question in a meeting?

The stakes can feel especially high in meetings. All the above steps will come in handy in this type of situation, but preparation is especially key. Make sure you’re fully informed about the topic of the meeting beforehand and have researched enough that you know you can’t find the answer to your questions anywhere else.

If this is a one-on-one business meeting, gather information about the other person before you see her as well. This will help guide your questions. In the case of a larger meeting, jot down notes and pay attention to the other questions that arise — you don’t want to repeat a question someone else has already asked. 

Why is it important to ask good questions?

When it comes down to it, we ask questions all the time — but why? There are many reasons why we should ask questions — and not just any questions, but thoughtful, articulate ones. Some of the most valuable outcomes are:

• You’ll learn something new. 

The main purpose of asking questions, of course, is to learn. In school, for example, asking a teacher or professor questions will help you delve deeper into the topic at hand and gain valuable knowledge. In a meeting at work, you might find a new approach to a problem you’ve been trying to tackle.

This is true for leaders as well as team members. If you’re a leader asking questions of your team, you may uncover new solutions, as well as better understand a task or obstacle.

• You’ll demonstrate that you’re invested. 

If you’re asking questions, it means that you are genuinely listening to what the other person has to say and care about the outcome of the discussion. (At least, this is true of thoughtful questions; asking careless questions, such as those that don’t actually pertain to what’s being discussed, could have the opposite effect.)

• You’ll show that you’re understanding what’s going on.

While some questions might reveal confusion about the topic at hand, thoughtful ones demonstrate that you’re comprehending the complexity of the situation and want to delve further into it to gain even more insight.

• You may prompt or realize breakthroughs.

The other person may not know the answer. Or, there simply might not be a “good” or “right” answer to the challenge you’re facing. However, asking questions can lead the other person or people to reflect and grapple with obstacles. For instance, if you’re a manager leading a team searching for a different approach to a task at hand, you might ask questions meant to uncover potential solutions that the team can implement and use to innovate and solve problems. 

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