Ask a Question Intelligently
Do you have questions but you're afraid of what someone will think if you ask or worried about getting the most from the answer? You can find some tips (below the jump) for asking more open-minded and informed questions that will help not only you but others to comprehend information placed before you, as well as extracting more information useful to you. However, if you need more specific help, feel free to also check out the sections listed above!
Part 1: Basic Technique
- Explain your misunderstanding. Give an excuse as to "how you got confused". This does not need to be true but should hide the fact that you might not have been paying the closest attention.
- "I'm sorry, I think I misheard you..."
- "I'm a bit unclear with that explanation..."
- "I think I might have missed something while I was taking notes here..."
- State what you know. State something that you do understand about the topic. This will show that you understand something about it and make you sound smarter.
- "...I understand that King Henry wanted to split with the Catholic Church so that he could get a divorce...."
- "...I understand that the job includes benefits..."
- "...I understand that intake is up across the board..."
- State what you don't know.
- "...but I don't understand how that led to the creation of the Church of England."
- "...but I'm unclear on whether or not you include dental in that."
- "...but I think I missed why we're responding this way."
- Sound confident. You want to project the idea that you're perfectly smart and you were totally paying attention, there was just some communication mix up.
- Have a come back. If they respond and tell you that the information was plainly stated, have a response ready to make yourself seem smarter.
- "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you said something completely different and thought it seemed a bit off. I didn't want to be rude and presume you were wrong. It's my fault, I apologize." And so on....
- Speak as well as you can. When you talk, use proper English with a reasonable vocabulary and good grammar. Do the best that you can. This will go a long way towards making you and your question seem more intelligent.
Part 2: Adjusting for Environment
- Ask questions in an interview. When asking questions of a potential employer, you want to show that you think really hard about how you work and how you'd work well in that particular environment. Show them that you're in line with their company values and policies. Ask questions like:
- "Can you please describe a typical week in this position?"
- "What opportunities will I have for growth and advancement?"
- "How does this company manage its employees?"
- Ask questions of an interviewee. When asking questions of an interviewee, you should be looking for signs of what type of employee they'll be. Avoid the standard questions, as you'll get a pre-packaged response rather than pure honesty, which is more likely to come out when you ask unique questions. Try asking questions like:
- "What types of work would you not want to do in this position?" This question reveals weaknesses that you can expect.
- "How do you think this job will have to change in the next 5 years? 10?" This question reveals how they respond to change and whether they can plan ahead.
- "When is it okay to break the rules?" This question is great at evaluating their ethics and whether or not they can adapt to complex situations or remain rigid.
- Ask questions online. People will be most likely to answer your online questions if they are, in fact, reasonable questions. People don't want to answer something that you could have found out for yourself with 2 minutes and a Google search (or a wikiHow!). To increase your chances even further, read the sections below. In the mean time make sure to:
- Always research first. Do basic research to try to answer your own question.
- Keep calm. Getting angry of flustered and having that show in writing will generally make people either ignore or make fun of you.
- Use the best spelling and grammar possible. This will show that you're serious and expect a serious answer. If you aren't sure about your spelling or grammar, try typing it into Word or Google Docs to get a quick spelling and grammar check.
- Ask questions in a business meeting. Questions asked in business meetings can vary widely, depending on the business and what role you play. If the previous and following sections don't help, you can at least follow these basic ideas:
- Ask questions that move things forward and solve problems. Ask questions about whether or not the meeting is on task. Figure out how the discussion topic relates to problems that the company is facing.
- Get to the point. Don't ramble. This will make people tune out and be dismissive.
- Look to the future. Ask questions about how the company needs to adapt in the future and what major hurdles will need to be overcome in order to succeed.
Part 3: Perfecting Your Question
- Hit the nail on the head. The most important thing, to ask a question intelligently is to have as much information to start off with, know a bit of what you're talking about, and to not be asking a dumb question. Generally there is no such thing as a dumb question, but if you could have answered it yourself with a quick Google search, then that is pretty dumb. Read below to really perfect your question before you ask it.
- Consider your goal. You need to decide what the intended goal of your question is. What will the answer help you accomplish, really? This will be helpful in deciding what information you require from the person you’re asking. The more specifics you know about what you need, the more intelligent your questions will be and the smarter you will appear.
- Compare what you know and what you don’t. Before you ask, think about what you do know about the topic and what you don’t know. Do you have a lot of information and only need small details? Do you know almost nothing? The more information you know about a topic, the more intelligent your questions can be.
- Look for points of misunderstanding. Examine what you know about the topic and what you’re confused about. Are you sure about the things that you do know? Oftentimes what we think we know creates questions that don’t really have answers because our initial information was wrong. It may be a good idea to do some basic fact checking, if you can.
- Try looking at the issue from all sides. It may be possible to answer your own questions, by looking at the problem from all sides. A new approach may help you see something you couldn’t see before, resolving any problems you had on the issue.
- Research first. If you still have questions and the opportunity is available, you should do your own research before asking the question. Knowing as much as you can about the subject before asking the question is the most important part about asking a question intelligently. That you are acquainted with the subject will show when you talk about it.
- Decide what information you need. Once you’ve done your research, you will be better informed about exactly what information you need. Consider this and, if possible, write it down so you don’t forget anything when you’re ready to ask.
- Find the right person to ask. Another major component of asking a question intelligently is making sure that you’re asking the right person. Being informed about the issue will help you be better prepared for this, but under certain circumstances you still might want to be sure that you’re contacting the correct person (if you are trying to contact a particular department or otherwise asking someone you do not know for help, for example).
Part 4: Forming Your Question
- Use correct grammar. When you ask your question, use the best grammar and pronunciation that you can. Speak clearly and enunciate. This will not only make you appear more intelligent, but it will help make sure that the person you are asking can understand you and what you want to know.
- Use specific language. Try to be as specific as you can and use specific language. Don’t use hyperbole, and make sure to ask about what you really want to ask about. For example, don’t ask a business person if they’re hiring at all, if you’re really only interested in a particular position. Similarly, don’t ask if they have a position open, but instead ask if they are hiring for the position you’re looking for or would be qualified for.
- Ask politely and second-guess carefully. You are seeking information to fill a gap in your knowledge and here is the person who may have the answer, so be polite! If appropriate, if you do not really feel comfortable with the response or feel that it does not respond to what you have asked, proceed gently by asking how they know this information. Ask what the general trend is that would short cut a path to that knowledge, meaning that you are seeking the tools to answer the questions yourself from this point onwards.
- Keep the question simple. Don’t ramble or explain anything more than what is needed to understand your problem and answer the question. Extra information can be distracting and may cause you to get an answer for an entirely different question that what you wanted to ask, if the person you’re asking misunderstands your purpose.
- For example, don’t tell your doctor all about your day leading up to your health problem. They don’t need to know that you got on the bus late that morning. What they do need to know is that you ate a different breakfast than normal and now your stomach hurts.
- Use either open ended or closed questions. Depending on the situation, you my want to be sure you’re asking either open ended or closed ended questions.
When you need a specific answer or a firm yes or no, try to use closed ended questions. When you need as much information as possible, use open ended questions.
- Open ended questions usually start with phrases like “why” and “tell me more about”.
- Closed ended questions usually start with phrases like “when” and “who”.
- Sound confident. Sound confident when you ask. Don’t be apologetic or self-deprecating. This will make you seem like you are more intelligent and make someone less likely to judge you on what you’re asking. This is more important in some situations than in others. If you’re asking a teacher a question, don’t worry about this. If you’re asking a question in a job interview, however, it’s probably a good idea.
- Don’t use filler language. Filler language is language like “erm”, ”um”, “uh“, “ah”, “em”, “like”, etc. These are words you put in a sentence while you’re looking for the next word you want to use. Most people do it completely unconsciously. Use as little filler language as possible if you want to appear more intelligent, and want your question to seem more well-thought-out.
- Explain why you’re asking. If it helps and the situation allows, you should consider explaining why you’re asking or what your eventual goal is. This may help clear up misunderstandings and may help the person you are asking to give you information you didn’t even know you needed.
- Never ask a question in an aggressive manner. This indicates that you are only asking the question to prove to the other person that you are right and they are wrong, meaning that you are argumentative and not open-minded. Ask because you are genuinely interested. Otherwise, you will receive a defensive and less than helpful response.
- Don't ask: "Isn't it true that more people would be well-fed if we ate grains directly rather than feeding it to animals and eating their meat?"
- Ask: "Many Cook Vegetarian Food That Non Vegetarians Will Enjoy argue that there would be more food available if Appear Successful in Modern Society didn't invest in meat production. The argument seems to make sense, but do you know of any arguments on the flip side?"
- Just ask! The most important part of asking a question is to just ask! There is essentially no such thing as a stupid question so you shouldn’t be ashamed to be asking for help. Asking questions is what truly smart people do! Also, the longer you put off asking, the more difficult your problem may become.
Part 5: Getting the Most From the Answer
- Avoid making them uncomfortable. If you find the information provider is beginning to feel uncomfortable and maybe out of their depth, do not press the issues. Unless you are questioning in a professional capacity as a journalist, senator, or lawyer, it is rare that a public grilling amounts to any good under most situations. As a member of the public or a student in class, you are seeking information, not a roasting. Back down and thank them. Often there will be time afterwards to chase them down and discuss things privately. Even if you are trying to extract information in the public interest, you have to realize that a delicate approach may be necessary to get real answers.
- Listen instead of talking over the response. If you want to get the most from the answer you are given, you need to start by listening to what the person has to say. Only intervene if they have clearly misunderstood an important piece of information and do so politely.
- Wait for them to finish their answer. It may seem like they’ve neglected an important piece of information but don’t probe for more until they’re done talking. They may not have gotten to their full answer yet or they may be waiting to get to that part of the answer because there is other information you have to understand first.
- Think about what they said. Think through all of the information they just gave you. Think about how the answer applies to your problem and if all of your questions were addressed. Don’t just take the information at face value, either. If something seems off, you might have gotten bad information! Just because you asked someone a question doesn’t mean they’ll have the right answer.
- Ask for clarification when you need it. If the answer they gave you doesn’t make sense or there is something about it that you don’t understand, don’t be too embarrassed to ask for further clarification. This will help keep further problems from arising because you did not get all the information you needed.
- Keep asking questions. Ask more questions if they come up until you have as complete an answer as possible. You may find that you bring up questions and information that didn’t occur to you originally. Asking more questions will also show the person that you’re asking that you’re really processing and appreciating the information they’re giving you.
- Ask for generally related advice. You can also ask for general advice in the area you’re asking about, if the person is an expert. They have a lot of information you don’t, but they’ve also been in a position where they had to learn all this information. They probably have some pro-tips that they wish someone had given them.
- Do not use huge words. They will make you sound pretentious. Just tap into your thoughtful but friendly side and don't worry too much about coming off as brilliant.
- Incorporate the audience into the question. Invite them in with phrases such as- "did you think about.." or "Have you considered this question..."
- Overdoing yourself is not very educated. Don't try to sound educated by using words that you do not understand or making it under-/over-done, for example:
- "Did you go to the 'pharmacy' yesterday to get a physical?" (wrong word).
- "Did you go to the doctor to get that thing where they observe and poke at you, do a lot of testing and stuff to get your doctor to tell you if you're the ship-sharpest person?" (which sounds too casual).
- "Did you proceed to the physician to obtain a physical for your extracurricular activity to verify that the practitioner finds you to be in the most perfect exemplary condition in contrast to all his other patients?" (which sounds over-done).
- For certain questions, try to do some research ahead of time. Try searching the Internet for the answers. Google is an amazing tool for finding great resources.
- Example: "Until now, I had always thought that classical music was not worth listening to. Maybe it is because all my friends hated it. But if musicians and educated men and women enjoy it, there must be something to it. I know you like it, so can you tell me what there is to appreciate?"
- Try to read more to add substance to what you are actually saying.
- Never ask a question just for the sake of it, whether it be to bring attention to yourself or for appearing smart. That is the worst possible motivation for asking a question.
- Watch out for getting aggressive at the response you get if you don't like the answers you get. If you're not willing to receive any and all answers, don't ask the question. Sometimes a person can answer aggressively to your innocent query. Don't fret.
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