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What Makes a Good Question Good?

Working in a professional services firm for much of my career, and then later as a teacher and instructor, I’ve learnt the power of good questions. But that begs – ironically – the question: What makes a good question good?

While we’re at it, we might as well discuss what makes bad questions bad.

Good questions …

    • Are precise. Their words are clear and specific to the respondent (not just to you).

    • Relate to a specific purpose, goal or intention.

    • Begin with low cognitive thinking (they ask the respondent to recall information) and lead to high cognitive thinking (they ask the respondent to evaluate or give an opinion about the information they’ve remembered.)

    • Often have more than one correct answer.

    • Encourage curiosity, to stimulate more thinking or research.

    • Encourage reflection after answering the question, so they retain what they know.

Examples of the most basic types of questions – closed and open – are listed here.

Bad Questions Distort

According to Monash Business School in Victoria, bad questions are any question that distorts the fundamental communication between the questioner and the respondent.

In other words, bad questions …

    • Confuse.

    • Intimidate.

    • Elicit an inappropriate emotion.

    • Are biased, often deliberately influencing the answer.

    • Are the ones where you (should) already know the answer.

1. Vague Questions

Vague questions don’t have a purpose or intention. What information are you trying to get? You don’t want the respondent to freeze up, meaning they spend more time thinking ‘What are they really asking me?’ and spend less time on answering the question.

  • Example:  What did you think of today’s workshop?
  • Improved:  What are the top three things you enjoyed about today’s workshop?
2. Leading Questions

These type of quesitons have the answer (or a suggestion of the answer) built into the question. Let’s just admit it: these types of questions come across as arrogant.

  • Example:  How great is our new restaurant?
  • Improved:  How would you describe our new restaurant?
3. Loaded Questions

Loaded questions assume everyone feels the same way as the person asking the question. Remove your biases and let the respondent do the thinking.

  • Example:  Are you going to vote for that incompetent misogynist?
  • Improved:  Who are you going to vote for?
4. Double-Barrelled Questions

It’s natural to want to ask two questions at once but they need prioritisation. To be clear, don’t preface your questions before you ask, such as “Now this is a two-part question …” and then ask both questions. Ask one, then the other.

  • Example:  When did you decide to become a mother, and why?
  • Improved:  When did you decide to become a mother? 
5. Double Negative Questions

Double negative questions have two negative words which make the opposite meaning true, likely confusing the respondent. Typically, make general questions positive.

  • Example:  Do you oppose not allowing us to have Friday’s drinks downstairs?
  • Improved:  Are you OK with allowing us to have Friday’s drinks downstairs?
6. Absolute Questions

Absolute quesions use an absolute term, such as alwaysneveronlyeveryoneno one, etc. They add unnecessary judgement.

  • Example:  Don’t you think only Australians should apply?
  • Improved:  Do you think Australians should apply?
7. Unclear Questions

Anything with poorly chosen words – usually slang, jargon, foreign words – confuse the respondent.

  • Example:  Which URLs do you go to find our products?
  • Improved:  Which websites do you go to find our products?
8. Random Questions

Random questions are irrelevant and out of context.

  • Example:  In the middle of an interview, you ask:  “Where do you get your fresh flowers?”
  • Improved:  If you must ask about the flowers, ask after the ‘interview’ is over.
9. Unanswerable Questions

These questions are so broad that there’s likely not an answer, or the answer is incredibly complex.

  • Example: What is love?
  • Improved: This is one where I’ll let you decide your own question.

Any questions about questions? What are other examples of bad questions?  Please feel free to comment below.

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What makes a good question good?

What Makes a Good Question Good?