The Science and Syntax behind asking the Right Questions…..

The Science and Syntax behind asking  the Right Questions...

There are essentially 3 Types of Questions:  Firstly; ‘Open’ Questions as they open a conversation and replies can be openly chosen by the person who answers them.   Secondly, ‘Closed’ questions that get you a ‘single word answer’ or ‘limited reply’. There are third type of Yes/NO questions that get you a clear positive or negative answers. 

In our conversation in English Classes at all levels we cover the syntax and structure of making all the three types of questions as above plus we also discuss more on implied meaning of some of the questions like ‘Why don’t we…’. Before you begin to Answer the questions you must understand ‘What exactly is the question?’ and ‘How can the answer be framed?’ In this post we will deal with when to ask what type of questions and what are the kind of questions that should not be asked particularly from strangers in the first meeting. Some of what we discuss here will sound quite logical to you (in any language) so we call this topic : ‘Science of Asking Right Questions’…in everyday situations.

Could I ask you a question?   (this is polite request often put even before you ask for directions or views  and if it is a personal question make it clear)

Do you all agree that ‘Questioning is an important speaking skill’?

We speak to deliver a message when we answer but sometimes we may want to: gather information about the back-ground of a person before we start friendship or know something from someone find out their ideas or views,  We may also need to confirm details. To be able to do these, we need to know how ask the right questions.

We speak to deliver a message, but sometimes we may want to:

  • Get some more information
  • Understand something from someone
  • Know their ideas or opinions,
  • Find out or confirm details.

To be able to do these, you need to know how to ask the right questions. As I said, you may ask 3 types of questions.
Usually you start with open questions to gather general information about the issue.
Then you can use closed questions to find out specific information or confirm some facts. We may use yes/no questions to further check or confirm the listener’s responses as also to para-phrase what you have understood (Don’t over do it !).

Open Questions: encourage your partner to speak freely so we can gather facts, knowledge-able insights, and opinions they may have on an issue. It’s a good way to start a conversation.

Open questions usually begin with:

  • What?
  • Could you explain?
  • How? or How to?
  • and sometimes Why?

This type of question gives listeners a chance to explain their views, thoughts, feelings and opinions. Avoid too many ‘Why?’ questions as they make the other person defending his opinions and give justification for everything. Remember: in casual conversations there are no easy answers to “Why do you like me?” so re-frame it to ask “What are the things that you like about me?”

Closed Questions: when you want to know more, we can use them to establish facts and details. You will get limited word response of comparison of preference sometimes quantity or other adjectives as well.

Closed questions typically begin with:

  • When?
  • Where?
  • Which?
  • Who?
  • How many? or How much?

This type of question requires a specific answer, and there’s usually only one answer. Some people may also give you 2-3 answers the first one beginning with ‘usually’ and the second with ‘sometimes’ . See the following example:

Person 1: When do you get ready for the office?

Person 2: I am usually ready by 8am but sometimes I get-up late so I am ready by 8.30am (on sundays or when i have some late-night work to do)

Yes/no Questions: that allow listeners to answer just yes or no. This type of question is useful for checking the listener’s responses. You should be careful when to use yes/no questions because they discourage further discussion.

Here are examples of Simple conversations with yes/no questions.

Understand this conversation between Sahil and Soloni…in two Situations watch and observe what types of questions Sahil uses and what Saloni’s responses are.

Situation 1

clerk filling a form
Asking Y/N questions – not interested in relationship. Completes formalities

Sahil: Good morning, can I help you?
Saloni: Yes, I’m here to pay the fee for Simran. I registered her for a ‘conversation in English’ program last week.
Sahil: Sure. What’s your complete name please?
Saloni: Khurana, I’m Saloni Khurana and her name is Simran Khurana
Sahil: Is your registration no. 1254?
Saloni: Yes.
Sahil: And your contact number is 93-101-6543? ……      wrong question
Saloni: Actually, I changed my phone – here’s my new number  xx-xxx-xxxx.
Sahil: Is she coming for our the regular – word-play program?
Saloni: Yes.
Sahil: Is there anything else or any specific problem?
Saloni: No, I don’t think so… I just came here to pay my fee on tell you the problems! (she says this with irritation)

(It is not very pleasant conversation as Sahil acts like ‘he is just filling-up a form’ or ‘completing some formality’ isn’t it? Yes/no and closed questions are not designed to encourage listener’s participation. These questions should be used only for finding or confirming facts and details. It’s easy to see why Saloni gets annoyed or not very engaged in the dialogue . She feels like she is being interrogated in court – and gives to the point replies. Now let’s continue the same situation again, but with a different questioning technique from Sahil.)

Situation 2

After asking a few closed and yes/no questions to establish and confirm Saloni’s identity and details. Sahil starts using open questions as a good teacher should -he wants to find out about Simran’s performance ‘outside’ the classroom.

The Relationship gets established - both are discussing something important.
The Relationship gets established – both are discussing something important.

Sahil: And how is Simran?
Saloni: She is doing very well! She is a Nice learner and reads all the mails sent by your institute T.r.i.c.k.s !
Sahil: Yes. I’m very happy with it. How happy are you with her progress?
Saloni:  Thanks for asking this. Yes, I am satisfied that she is learning English, I think I heard her speak to her friends on phone. She was doing her gossip in English and was very easily talking to her class-mates and friends
Sahil: Really!  We do encourage her to speak more. When did you start to notice this change?
Saloni: About a week ago.
Sahil: Was it a big discussion or a small discussion that she had with her friends?
Saloni: A small one, I think… but her English and confidence to speak seems to get a bit better every-week. I also talk to her in English she replies to all my questions easily 🙂 Maybe she also needs to start asking questions in English… you are the trainer for her so you decide. Just my feedback. Overall she is doing good and I am happy with her classes.

Notes on Types of Questions:
Saloni is a happier customer this time. Sahil is also uncovering a potential good learner in Simran. This can save him time and encourage Simran later on in the class ‘to ask her questions’. As you can see, open questions allow Saloni to speak freely, so Sahil can gather as much information as he can about her daughter. He uses closed questions to establish facts about the student. He uses yes/no questions to confirm Saloni’s details for the fee deposit.

 In this topic, we have learned that there are three types of questions we can use.

• Open questions to gather more information, views opinions.
• Closed questions to establish facts and details.
• Yes/no questions to clarify facts and details.

I leave the ‘Art of Asking Questions’ for my next post as also what are powerful questions. We will also discuss Question behind any question in my subsequent posts… stay tuned!


7 thoughts on “The Science and Syntax behind asking the Right Questions…..

  1. The discussion is closely related to personality development and students get the same benefit from this article as an MBA student …the kind of stuff one must keep in mind during interactions


  2. asking question is an art. most of the student don’t know how to frame powerful question. answering the closed question is very difficult for the student.
    we can frame number of question according to situation.
    how come to you know about the institute?
    what do you expect from me ?
    what i can do for you?
    what kind of favour do you want?
    why should i do this work?
    who is your role model?
    what if you do, if you select in this interview. (Ashish: not clear)
    why should i hire you?

    After reading the post regarding questions i realised that not only the answering is important but also asking powerful question, that has equal importance.


    • Great understanding Avinash, you should share your views more often…

      Some feedback on 2 of your 8 questions (i also did minor corrections in a few others):
      1) “Why should i do this work?”

      -will make the listener feel that you or the speaker is not interested in doing ‘the work’ or a negative impression. Re-frame your question to: “What is in it for me?”… “what is the expected outcome if i do this work”… this is more positive. Don’t you agree with me?

      2) “what if you do,if you select in this interview” has some problem with grammar or structure of the question is not clear!

      Please change it to:

      What if I select you in this interview? or “What if you are selected….”

      In the end I ask you 2 Questions- to continue this dialogue between us!

      How would you use this feedback to make more powerful questions? … your thoughts as underlined above are golden for the young learners here in my class. Could you share your views everyday before start of the class?


  3. Thanks Savita… this is good progress… but still a lot more to understand.

    Actually, there are no ‘hard and fast’ rules on what type of questions to ask when: depends also on the situation and (as you rightly picked) existing relationship between the people in a conversation.

    Ask open questions: when you want to build or establish relationship, know more about the other person’s needs, get details, views etc.

    Ask Closed or Yes/No Qs: When you want to confirm facts and data

    I have also updated the post with some pictures to help you understand better.

    Remain Curious: Keep asking more questions…

    Thanks Sonam & Sudhir for pointing out a few typos (mistakes): You are good at reading… Really appreciated! Please see the corrections done and repeat both the role-plays. Speak them out in front of the class to get the right expressions in your questions.


  4. Sir, today i have read the complete post of “The Science and Syntax behind asking the Right Questions” and also find out what type of questions asking in appropriate place.
    as a example: when i am a teacher/ Trainer
    => should ask always open questions.
    i) Why are you giving the pan without my instruction?
    ii) what are you doing right now?
    When i am a friend
    => should ask close questions
    i) is your mobile no. 9811005972
    ii) how are you?
    ii) how many dresses you have?


Submit your Assignment, Ask a Question? or just Leave a Comment on what you liked...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s