Asking better questions

Good questions are the core of research, and properly designing them can be an underappreciated skill. Formulating questions to elicit valid and useful responses is the foundation of every survey, focus group discussion, interview guide, and screening tool. But researchers are not the only professionals who ask questions to gain insights. Look around any organization and consider all the questions being asked by:

  • Department managers who interview potential employees and evaluate staff
  • Sales representatives who query prospects 
  • Purchasing managers who select and manage vendors
  • Fundraisers who ask for donations
  • Marketers who talk with customers to build content
  • Customer service staff who resolve problems 

Almost every person in your organization routinely asks questions as part of delivering on your mission and achieving your goals. Do they know the rules of good questioning?

Keys to asking effective questions

Take a cue from research practices and pay attention to these four aspects of effective questioning: what you ask, how you ask, when you ask, and where you ask.

What you ask 

The biggest mistakes to avoid are asking leading, biased, and double-barreled questions. Leading questions influence responses. Instead of asking a customer “What did you value most about our quality service?”, ask something like, “How was your experience with our customer service?” Make sure your questions have a single focus. When you ask an employee if they received the resources and feedback they needed to improve their job performance, they are being asked to respond to two questions (one about resources and one about feedback), and one response does not reflect how they feel about each of those aspects.

How you ask  

Is your question direct or indirect? A direct question to an employee would be something like, “Did you get in late today?”, while the indirect version might be, “I heard you came in late today.” Indirect questions are typically embedded in a statement and often elicit more truthful answers, helpful context, and reasoning. Direct questions, on the other hand, can feel like an interrogation and make people defensive.

Is your question open- or close-ended? Close-ended questions are answered with a short, set answer (“Yes,” “No,” “Six,” etc.). Open-ended questions let a person convey a unique answer and typically provide deeper insights. One effective technique of asking open-ended questions is the Socratic method. This usually involves asking a series of probing and clarifying questions to reveal the core beliefs or needs of the person. Responses are often followed up with questions or requests such as:

  • Can you tell me more about that?
  • What would an example of that look like?
  • How did you come to have that opinion?
  • Can you say that in a different way?

If you ask people to tell a story, they will reveal far more than if asked a direct question. Consider this the next time you consider asking a customer to provide an NPS or other satisfaction rating; would inviting them to share a story about a time they were highly satisfied or dissatisfied with you be more valuable information than the singular datapoint?

When you ask

Timing is everything. If you want to understand customer satisfaction with a particular transaction, you will get the most reliable responses proximate to occurrence. If you want to understand a customer’s overall satisfaction or their perceptions of your organization/brand, asking questions a few months (or even a year) down the road might be more appropriate. 

Also, think about the person’s schedule. What time of the day, week, month, or year is better for them to consider your questions thoughtfully or provide a detailed response?

Where you ask

The setting in which questions are asked can have a large impact. Just think of the terror induced by the idea of being called into the principal’s office! In research, we try to secure a neutral site or have participants respond in their own home or business. The goal is to have participants feel safe and comfortable sharing their true thoughts. That is why negotiation meetings are often held off-site. And why off-site employee retreats tend to open people up.

Understanding the psychology and science of asking good questions is vital for effective research, but it can also benefit your organization in many other ways. 

​​Linda Kuster is president at Vernon Research Group, based in Cedar Rapids. Contact her at or or (319) 364-7278, ext. 7104.