What makes a great question?

January 8, 2010

This post is in draft form, and I’ll welcome your comments as I complete it.  I felt it was best to post it here, so that you comments can be  based on this very specific — if incomplete — draft document.

Whenever I attend a lecture or meeting, I’m usually one of the first to ask questions.  When the meeting is over people often  come up  with thanks  for my “great questions”.  I’m typically surprised that they haven’t asked similar questions of their own, but I’ve also come to understand that my questions do have certain characteristics that make them helpful and appreciated.  Thats good, because I’m a curious person and want to ask more questions, and still more.

Much of my work is also about asking questions.  My coaching practice (I prefer to call it “clarifying”) involves asking powerful questions.  Responding to these helps my clients find insight and clarity.  In helping to make technology more “user friendly”, I’m always asking — or wanting to see — how users try to use a computer system (or other technology), and notice when they get helpful clues and when they get stuck or pointed in an unhelpful direction.  In my general business consulting, I’m asking questions about how an organization or product adds value, about how it is perceived, and about where theory and practice of what’s going on might diverge.  Finally,  in my dance photography, I’m asking visual questions, to see what’s interesting, perhaps visually compelling, and can tell the story of the dance and of my response to it in a visually interesting way.

What makes a “Great Question”?  It’s hard to define, and I’m tempted to compare this task with that of defining pornography.  Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart stayed away from that one, but said simply, “I know it when I see it.”  However, I think I can do better than that in defining what makes a great question.

First, some question are never great questions:

  • Questions that attempt to make the speaker wrong, or silly
  • Questions that primarily trumpet the knowledge or virtuosity of the questioner.
  • Tedious questions, that are hard to understand
  • Questions that require much more detailed knowledge or understanding than most of the audience present
  • Questions that come from a lazy place, asking the speaker to repeat what has already been said clearly.
  • Questions that don’t connect at all with an engaging conversation that is already taking place.
  • Questions that aren’t really questions, but an opportunity to voice your own set opinion

Listing positive aspects of great questions is much harder, but here are a few:

  • Great questions arise from genuine curiosity, and don’t have an obvious answer.
  • Great questions require real thinking to answer, and typically expand the world of the questioner and of those that try to answer the question.  Both the questioner and the questioned learn from a great question.
  • A great question is one for which you really want to know the answer (and don’t already have it!)
  • A great question grows in importance the more you think about it.
  • A great question moves toward the essence of the subject –toward the center — instead of towards the periphery.

While these lists of positive and negative qualities may help in recognizing great questions when they arise (and in noticing which questions should not be asked!),  they do little to inform the process of question generation.  On this subject, my observations are more general, and I’ll welcome your comments or additions (post them as ‘comments’ to this blog post).

I usually start testing my comprehension  by building a mental model of what I’ve heard the speaker (or writer) say, then try working with the model to see if I really understand  it.  Recently I was at a panel discussion on setting goals for  businesses and for  individuals.  Each of the speakers emphasized the need for us to make the goals explicit, to set them down in lists, even put them on post-its next to our computer screens.  That seemed simple enough, and I started thinking of what my (not yet written) goals might be.  But — uups — some were about things I wanted to do (like write a book, create a new web site), while others were measures of performance or achievement (like number of billable hours, or signing of representation agreements with galleries).  Clearly I had a question grwoing about this duality, but was it an important and substantial question, or a picky one just about details.  I decided that there was a fundamental difference between these kinds of goals, and found that I really wanted to know how each of the speakers would balance these types in their goal setting process.  I did ask the question, and got feedback indicating that it was, indeed, helpful and welcomed.  I believe it was a great question.

Sometimes I’ll notice an  assumption that’s not called into question, and that may raise questions about an important conclusion.  A coaching client told me that she’s seeing resistance to change on the part of managers reporting to her at the organization she runs.  How did she know that was the object of their resistance, I wondered?  If an explicit agenda for change had not been laid out, resisting that agenda didn’t seem possible.  Was it resistance to any change?  Or, might it be a resistance to the process — which did not include these managers in certain critical ways.  My question, “How do you know what the resistance is directed at?”

Other questions arise from trying to imagine a specific case.  I remember a client telling me that, “When the order is complex, of course, all this falls apart”.  (It doesn’t matter what ‘this’ is.)  My response, “So, tell me about a particular complex order, and what fell apart”.  The general statement was  bland; the specific one that followed from this statement was lucid and engaging.

Frequently I’ll experience a kind of “cognitive disonance”, where different truths appear to contradict each other.  I would ask for resolution, or try to point fingers because there is a contradiction.  Simply asking, “What do you do with that apparent contradiction” can be a powerful question.

Whatever the process of generating the qustion, I’ll end by testing whether the question is just for me, or is meant to be shared:

  • Do I really care about the answer?
  • Will the answer help me and others understand the important issues involved here?
  • Have I formulated the question in the simplest and most specific form?
  • If somebody else asked the question, would it be just as important to me?

I’ve been guided  in writing this by suggestions from many friends and social media acquaintances, including Mac McCabe, Linda Snyder, Lisa Van Oosterum, Zev Eisenberg, Jo Belfield, and Paraic Hegarty.

19 Responses to “What makes a great question?”

  1. Allison Bishop said

    The list of what makes a bad question should be posted in every lecture entrance. Too many times, questions asked break one or many of these guidelines and I fell my inward self moan at the waste of a good opportunity. It is not easy to come up with a great question, but it is easy to eliminate the bad ones. Thanks for this discussion.

  2. Rick Gibbs said

    Interesting Topic …
    In my experience I have come to realize the situation dictates criteria for what makes a “great question”. I’ll explain:

    When working as a journalist, the range of interviewees is very wide, but for purposes of this discussion I will illustrate just two, each at opposite ends of the spectrum.

    One day I may confront an experienced public figure who has information he/she is not willing to share. Generally they don’t lie, but the practiced ones know how to answer EXACTLY what they were asked … and NOTHING more. So a good question must be based on:
    – listening COMPLETELY to a previous answer
    – FREE FROM the ego
    – SINGULAR and CLOSED-ended

    The next day I may be in a lengthy interview with an “average citizen” who has a story to tell. Quite often they don’t know how to tell their story, or whether or not they even want to tell it. For them, a great question should be based on:
    – listening COMPLETELY for subconscious clues to an open door
    – an understanding that the questioner is a practiced story teller, and can HELP this person tell their story.
    – singular, but CAN BE OPEN-ended

    Obviously there are many shades of gray between these two poles. But when not working as a journalist, I find myself in situations completely off that spectrum. Perhaps the only two rules which I find universally fit are:
    – Listen carefully to the person. What you are listening FOR could be different depending on the situation, but if you don’t catch it, the opportunity is missed.
    – The focus of the question (and the discussion) is the OTHER PERSON, not the questioner.

    My 2 cents worth

  3. Mary Munro-Hill said

    This draft is both thought-provoking and challenging. Thank you so much!

    Your list of negatives is most useful, as is your list of positives!

    I have lost count of the times when I have had to sit through completely irrelevant questions, which have been posed simply to demonstrate the knowledge of the questioner, both when I have been the speaker and when I have been simply a member of the audience. On one or two occasions I have been embarrassed on behalf of the speaker when s/he has failed to understand the point of a question, or rather what lay behind it!

    At a recent Quaker conference I was surprised and disappointed to hear the speaker admit that he had never thought of the question I had put to him, whereas (to me) it was something that most people present, who were interested in God, Spirit, Light, Theology would have really loved to know! He was a professor of mathematics – and a Quaker – who had never considered mathematics as revealing the mind of God. My question to him had been framed in personal terms: “To what extent has your study and knowledge of mathematics shown you the mind of God?”.

  4. Abigail Maxwell said

    As you are a Quaker, do you ever feel inspired to ask a question, ask it, and see good qualities in it after? Or are you consciously making these calculations when drafting questions?

    I think a great question depends on context. I went to a lecture from an army officer about all the good the British Army is doing, and asked about “killing people and destroying things” rather than the horrible euphemisms he produced. Then after, someone asked me, “Where would we be if Britain had not gone to war with Hitler?”- Excellent question, zeroing in on a serious potential weakness.

    • Arthur Fink said

      Responding to Abigail Maxwell: In this article I’ve tried to set forth the guidelines, questions, concerns, and process that typically guide me as I generate and ask (or don’t ask) questions. As Abigail suggests, I don’t always follow these in a formal sequential manner. But i do believe that I’m typically checking myself, with at least the question “Why am I about to ask this?”.

      Yes — context is very important.

  5. John Ward said

    Sometimes a “great” question might be one which helps the person answering it to discover something he or she had not realised, hitherto, to be the case. And such a question might be very short – a single word, even.

    For example, someone might be explaining what s/he saw as the significance of a particular situation. When s/he had finished (or thought s/he had) the listener says, “And…?” – or “So….?” or a similar question.

    That has the effect of changing the explanation from one which is giving an account – even parroting someone else’s account – to one which comes direct from the thought and reasoning of the individual. Thus, the simple “great” question might produce a truly great answer.

  6. These are all good points and worthy of more consideration. As an art educator, good questions are ones that provoke multiple answers. Bad questions are just what you have listed, but the good ones are indeed harder to define. This is a great start!
    Thanks for asking,

  7. Ted Chan said

    Hi Arthur:

    I really like this post. I thought about some framework approach to it (having a management consultant background and all). But I think the answer for me is that it entirely depends on the context. I feel the bad questions are easy to define – a good one is the right question, at the right moment. In general, as a social entrepreneur, the questions I like tend to fall into two categories:

    1) Difficult to answer
    2) Worth answering

    Anyhow, keep up the blogging – enjoyed reading through all your back posts and will try to swing by from time to time.


  8. Nick Cutler said

    Great questions don’t pop into existence from nothing, they evolve as part of a conversation.

    So it might be more illuminating to apply a list of ‘not great’ and ‘great’ attributes to an entire conversation, rather than to a question.

    We have many conversations, some are life-long, some transient. Some with people, some with things, some with ideas ……….


    • Yorai said

      Arthur, This is a great post and i agree with the connection Nick made with the art of conversation.
      I believe a great question is a question that is actually asked. Without aired questions there can be no learning, not for the public and not for the person presenting the question, so its important to practice question asking. From there on, its very important to join the discourse in a manner that leaves the discourse alive and Arthur’s guidelines are quit helpful in this sense.
      Reading the post I get the feeling that the guidelines for a great question can be used also for great conversation approach, great comments, great critique etc’

  9. Jeff Ball said

    Thanks Arthur… never gave it that much thought! Glad you are so prepared! Being prepared is half the battle isn’t it?! Thanks for sharing. I now have some great bullet points to pull from!

  10. Patrick said

    Thank you for your post. I agree, questions are important. Is it important, though, for every question to be “great”? It seems to me that how the question is asked can be separated from what is asked. Some people I have met have asked questions that might have fallen under your list of bad questions — but, in fact, what they wanted to ask was still relevant. They just did not know how to ask it. Which leads me to ask: Is asking a “great” question more art or science? And if someone should desire to learn how ask great questions, how does one go about practicing? Thank you.

  11. This is a thought provoking post! I wonder, will people who ask stupid questions actually read this?

    That’s only partially intended as a joke; the main reason people ask stupid questions is they’re not paying attention. You were much kinder when you said that one of the “never great questions” would be one that “comes from a lazy place…”

    When I was a kid I remember a well-meaning teacher telling me “there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” I’ve heard that a thousand times since then.


    There are two stupid questions:

    1) When you ask me to repeat what I just said simply because you weren’t paying attention and

    2) When you ask me to repeat what I just said because you weren’t paying attention.

    I welcome questions that challenge, ask me to clarify or expand on what I’m saying. If someone doesn’t want to pay attention I would rather they get up and leave the room or remain quietly asleep trying not to snore too loudly!

    Thanks for posting a very insightful blog; one that should be distributed to every teacher in the country…we’ve got to get ’em while they’re young!

    Best thoughts!

  12. Hello and many thanks for a informative web site. I am still thinking over what you wrote here.

  13. Sandra said

    What makes a great question great is a wonderful sand box to play in. One person said that context is everything; I can concur. AND I would say that a great question is great for the person it is designed for. So part of defining a great question is the answerer. Some really great questions are too challenging for some and too lite for others. When asking, it is important to position the question and its level of “greatness” for the answerer. What I love about this idea is that it requires that I be connected to the answerer and his level of attending in order to produce a great question. I cannot produce a great question by myself, and that makes this inquiry so rich and fun to think about.

  14. Tiny Prial said

    Appreciate this. Really interesting entry.

  15. Sharon said

    I love how the Quaker tradition has taught mr the importance of Questions… “Queries” in the tradition. It is no surprise to me that you have an intellectual and intuitive grasp of Questions… it is a Gift of the tradition, in my humble opinion 🙂 ~Thanks for sharing this~

  16. Norm Weersing said

    What a delightful way to get ‘caught up’ after a long hiatus! We last conversed about Progress 4GL; while that’s a powerful tool, it impresses me much less than a timely and well considered question from an informed listener.

    To respond to an earlier conjecture here, I feel that this topic is cogent and worth exploring in depth; our time is usually more limited than we imagine. I think this aspect of our finitude makes it worthwhile to compose our questions with more care than if we all had boundless time to spend. To often I think of what I _reallly_ wanted to ask, after the opportunity has vanished. People move on, or develop Alzheimer’s, even die, … before I can play Peter Falk’s ‘Columbo’ role and get to the point in my queries.

    I’ll be looking for more of your gems from the realm of coaching and clarifying ‘dialogs’. (Remember back when … how we worked ‘dialog’ to death ?)

    Besides photographing the kinds of dance that entail toe-shoes, en-pointe and tours-jêtées, are you a contra-dancer ? My wife and I find that to be a delightful way to exercise, esp. on these cold, wet days.

    I’m glad to see you are well and active.

  17. Chris Roberts said

    Very briefly:
    1. It depends who’s side you are on. If you both work for the same company you never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. Then if the presenter gets stuck, you can help him or her out.

    2. Rhetorical questions have their place. Real dialog includes comment and it can be a little irritating when they try to circumscribe potentially creative debate.

    Not to dismiss your thinking Arthur, it’s just that you seem to assume a benign environment.

    FWIW, Chris

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