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A New Question That Invites a Story

During a listening exercise, a young woman asked a question I’ve never asked.

I led a group on a listening exercise. The instructions were simple.

Listen to ask a question.

She asked, “How did that become important to you?” Her question invites a story.

The anatomy of a question:

Questions show:

  1. Respect.
  2. Openness to explore.
  3. Willingness to learn.

#1. Avoid, “Why is that important?”

“Why” questions:

  1. Might feel like accusations.
  2. Invite reasons. The answer to a “why question” is a reason, not a relationship.
  3. Encourage excuses. “Why did you hit your brother?” is answered with a justification.

I often ask, “What makes that important to you?”

  1. “What” invites reflection. (You might say “why” invites reflection and you’d be right. I prefer “what.”)
  2. Adding “to you” invites personal reflection.

#2. Good questions are short.

The longer you talk before asking a question, the more you answer your own question.

Avoid long stories and elaborate explanations before asking questions.

“Tell me more,” is a great question that isn’t really a question.

A good question might be, “Hmm,” combined with raised eyebrows and a smile.

#3. Avoid questions that begin with didn’t, don’t, isn’t, or couldn’t.

“Don’t you think…,” is an assumption pretending to be curious.

Assumptions offend curiosity.

The person who asks a question that begins with didn’t, don’t, isn’t, or couldn’t is trying to:

  1. Judge your intelligence.
  2. Look smart.
  3. Control the conversation.
  4. Give an answer by asking a question.

#4. Practice silence.

Stop talking after asking a question.

Use eagerness to talk as a trigger to zip it.

Don’t mistake introversion for listening. An introvert can be as arrogant and disinterested as an extrovert.


If you try the “Listen to ask a question” exercise, don’t answer the question. The point is to learn how to ask questions, not answer them.

Questions are invitations to connect.

What suggestions for questions might you add?

Bonus material:

Better Brainstorming (HBR)


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