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The Art of the Query: How to Ask a Good Question
People ask questions because they want answers. In order to get a good answer, you will have to ask a good question. It's that simple, and that complex, all in the same stroke. You should try to develop a game plan before you even begin asking questions. Surely, you don't want to end up listening to a half hour story about someone's latest customer service problem when all you want to know is how to find a good voicemail service!
Preparing To Ask the Question
The first thing you have to do is prepare to ask the question itself. There is more than one type of question, so make sure that you know as much about what you're asking as possible. If you're asking a question about finding an answering service, make sure that you know as much as possible about the services you want. Know everything you can about the things you don't want as well. This will show the person that you're serious about your question and you are looking for an intelligent conversation. It shows that you're not looking for someone else to do all the hard thinking and then just provide you with an answer.
It's also important to make sure that you're asking the right person. Everyone knows asking the wrong person is the same as asking an answering service. Some people are just more qualified to answer a question. Don't ask someone who does video editing about virus scanning software just because they use it. Find someone who's more likely to actually have great knowledge about virus scanning software.
Asking the Question
When asking a question, always be specific. Ask exactly what you want to know so that you can get exactly the answer that you need. Questions that require a "yes" or "no" answer are usually the best way to go. If you're asking about the upgrading to a new software for synchronizing systems, instead of asking "Have you heard of any good programs?" ask instead, "I've heard that this new program is more effective. Is that true?" The answer will typically be "yes" or "no" and if you require more information, you can ask another question.
If you're looking for a longer, more detailed answer that has more to do with someone's opinion, ask an open-ended question that gives the person room or space to initiate a longer conversation. Make sure it's clear that you're listening. Nothing stops a conversation faster than someone feeling your attention has wandered. Even if the person goes on a long ramble which could have been much shorter, you have to pay attention.
Dealing with the Answers
When you've gotten your answer, acknowledge that the person took the time to speak to you, even if they've made you feel a bit dumb for not already knowing. This is important because if you need more help on the subject in the future, you want to be able to just go and ask the same person. If you find you don't understand the answer given to you, ask for clarification. It's better to understand the answer fully than to go away with more questions.
- The Art and Architecture of Powerful Questions: Discusses what makes a good question and how a powerful question can make a difference (PDF file)
- Eric Raymond's Treatise on asking good questions
- The Change Zone: Some advice from Powerful Questions That Get Results by Steve Trivett (PDF file)
All of these techniques will help you ask good questions and get the answers you're looking for.
Written by Jacob C. Herman