Do you like questions?
If you’re like most people, you want answers. And why wouldn’t you? Answers are information that helps us determine the current situation, how someone feels, or what’s next. We make big and small decisions every day based on answers. But how do we arrive at having answers? It starts with asking questions.
Yet, asking questions may not be enough. We must ask the right ones. There are different dimensions to questions. Some illicit simple, one-word answers. Others can invite a varying degree of responses. Have you ever asked a question and received a response that was nowhere near what you expected? Understanding the different dimensions can better equip you to ask the right questions. Better questions can extract valuable information. In addition, when we ask better questions, we are better able to influence the conversation into a productive exchange.
Answers are not nearly as important as questions. The right answer to the wrong question can lead you down the wrong path. A sign of an intelligent person is the quality of his questions.
This article presents definitions, concepts, and strategies for questions that lead to stronger and more effective communication exchanges. Specifically:
- Three Dimensions
- The art of answering
- Questions worth asking
- Owning your responses
The three dimensions of questions
There are three types of questions.
I refer to them as 1D, 2D, and 3D questions.
1D Questions are binary.
The answer can only be yes/no, right/wrong. There are no feelings or interpretations included. It will be definitive. A 1D question is best used to receive a clear answer by eliminating unnecessary details. There should be no uncertainty in the response.
2D Questions are linear.
Responses are on gradients and scales. One person may reply ‘nothing at all’ while another says ‘quite a bit.’ A 2D question will invite varying answers based on the respondents’ experience. The response would fall into a set range of replies. With the example above, you are gaining insight on how much or how little the person is getting from your interaction. A 1D question would fail to offer the same value.
3D Question are open-ended.
You’ll never know what comes out. 3D questions are open-ended questions, allowing room for complex answers. The open-endedness of the question allows the replier to navigate out loud their thinking or feelings. 3D questions can create constructive dialogue where 1D or 2D may not have. Such questions allow us to better understand the inner thoughts and feelings of the person answering. 3D Questions are great for getting to know someone, interviews, and dates.
🫀 3D Question to guage feelings
🧠 3D Question to understand thoughts
Asking the right type of question
Knowing what type of question to ask impacts the answer you’ll receive.
If you needed to confirm Susan is attending a meeting, 1D Questions yield the appropriate type of answer.
A simple 1D question requires a specific answer. Ask Susan a 1D question and more than likely she will give you a binary (yes/no, true/false, etc) answer.
Within 1D, 2D, and 3D questions are sub-categories of questions, like offensive, irrelevant, rhetorical, and loaded ones. So buckle up. Here are different question types and how you can handle them.
More questions than answers
There are questions that can intensify or derail an interaction. Not all questions are equal in their power. In the examples below, note the effect each one can have on a conversation.
This one is Rambo’s favourite question: machine-gun questions. Asking back-to-back questions rapid-fire with no room to answer.
What were you thinking?
Why would you do it that way?
Didn’t you consider my feelings?
Bursting out a series of questions all at once serves little purpose, unless you’re purposely looking to frustrate or annoy your listener. If you’re on the receiving end of machine-gun questions, wait and listen. Let the person run out of steam. Respond with a statement-jab and question-knockout.
Never react. Always respond.
Which question would you like me to answer first?”
Go for the kill by adding:
If you’ve been listening well, this would be an ideal time to recite the first, second, and nth question back. This usually takes the wind out of the offense. Remember, your goal is not to demean or belittle. Helping the other person see that they are asking too many questions for one person to answer honestly, can often times calm all parties and move back to productive dialogue.
Loaded Rhetorical Questions
This next one is a stinger too. The loaded rhetorical questions nested in statements.
“The client asked for A and you created a task asking our writer for B
and our designer for C!”
“Are you an idiot!?”
Loaded rhetorical questions can trigger a strong emotional response. What makes them loaded is the presumption of fault embedded in the question. Don’t let the heat of the accusation make you snap back. Follow the same advice for machine-gun questions. Be calm, take note, and statement/question your way to clarification.
Begging the Question
Similar to loaded rhetorical questions, both exist to elicit an emotional reaction. They are accusatory and offensive in nature. The question implies an untrue or unproven statement, attempting to trap the person being asked.
❌ Loaded Question
“Do you believe I cheat on my taxes?”
“Would you like to ask me a question that is not loaded with accusation?”
“ Your question is accusatory, and unfair.”
Essay questions can test your patience.
…would that work for you?”
A major setup to a simple question. We call it ‘beating around the bush.’ Respect everyone’s time, and leave the bush alone. This is especially annoying in a Q&A session when a person wastes the audience’s time by requiring a major setup to ask a simple question. This often happens because:
- The person wants to demonstrate their intellectual horsepower
- The person wants to ‘beg the question’ and set up the responder
- The person doesn’t know how to articulate his thoughts clearly and concisely
“Do you have a quesion? If so, what is it?”
“Please respect the audience’s time and proceed with your question.”
Asking to ask Question
The question we all hear every day? The pointless one.
A question that is redundant. This typically happens when there is a power dynamic in play, in which the person asking the question feels she needs approval before she can ask. This pre–question question diminishes your power and stature. Don’t do it. Clearly ask the question on your mind.
“Will I receive the raise?”
“When will I receive the raise?”
Irrelevant Questions (and Answers)
This is when the question or answer has little to no bearing on the subject discussed. For example, you are discussing a marketing project with someone and they ask:
“You guys like sushi?
The question has no bearing on the topic at hand. Irrelevant questions are questions which are believed to have no, or very little impact on a subject. Posing one or replying to derails the dialogue. In meetings, this can be very unproductive and costly.
Unprofitable and Profitable Questions
Imagine you are regularly late for meetings. After being particularly late one day, you ask yourself:
The examples above can be labelled unprofitable and profitable questions. Our subconscious minds are receiving stations. Our brains want to honour the question. When we ask “Why am I always late?” our mind will look for reasons to why we are late. When we ask, “How can I make sure to be on time?” our mind will look for those answers. Profitable questions lead to solution-based results. Unprofitable questions loop the reasons why we were not successful. Dwelling on why you failed can lead to more unprofitable actions and habits. Reasoning on how to change sets you up for success. Each of these questions leads to a different reality.
Every brain is both a broadcasting station and a receiving station for the vibrations of thought.
The art of the answer
Bad answers follow bad questions. But even if we ask great questions, we may give ineffective answers. Here are a few that’ll derail the aim and focus of the question.
When someone goes on long, they forget the original question. They’ve given a run-on answer.
While we may forgive a memory slip, receiving a totally different answer to our question means we’re either getting a wrong dimensional answer or a same dimensional response on the wrong topic. Next time you ask someone a question, listen carefuly and notice if the person is answering your question, or answering the question she heard.
Wrong Dimensional answers break up a lot of relationships (one assumes).
Cowardly responses come in two colours:
1. Avoiding answering a direction question (1D)
2. Asking a question with a question.
In the words of Dale Carnegie, “Be a good listener.” This skill helps win friends, influence people, and influence the conversation. Does the person’s response start with I feel, or I think? Does he talk a lot or ask interesting questions? Is her questions loaded and rhetorical or curious and open-ended?
Knowledge is power. That is why:
He who asks the questions
controls the conversation.
Three tips to remember
Empathy and compassion goes a long way.
Be calm and guide the dialogue in the direction that’s mutually beneficial.
Ask good questions, get good answers.
The way we use questions can have a powerful effect. In the next article, see two real world examples of how questions control the conversation.