The Absolute Worst Question You Could Ever Ask

We’ve all been told that the only bad question is the one not asked.

That’s a lie. You know it. I know it. There is such a thing as a bad question.

Question Mark Man

Image by Marco Belluci

Just think about your last trip to the store. It may have gone something like this:

You enter through the automatic door. There’s a couple of sales associates chatting. And then you’re approached by a different sales associate.

He greets you by asking “Can I help you with anything today?”

Your instincts kick in and you answer, almost robotically, “No, I’m just browsing today.”

You’re able to answer with a yes or a no. No need to expound upon why you’re in the store.

The question gave you an easy out and you took it. Effectively ending the conversation.

“Can I help you?”

Now, that’s a bad question… It may be the worst question you can ask.

Instead, we need ask better questions. Questions that will generate real answers.

Let’s take a look at a couple of questions that can evolve into better questions:

               Bad Question
Good Question
Can I help you today? What brings you into the store today?
How have you been? What’s the most exciting event that’s happened to you recently?
How’s the job going? What do you enjoy about your job?
What’s wrong with you? What issues are you struggling with?

Do you see the difference? The bad questions tend to ask for one word or very short answers. You could answer with a yes or a no. Good or bad. Nothing or everything.

There’s no depth to the question.

The good questions raise a concern for the person. They want to KNOW.

Good questions make it harder to answer with one or two words. You delve deeper than the surface. You show an interest in the person.

Now go out and ask better questions!

Question: How do you craft a good question? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Put yourself in the place of the person being questioned.  Does the question being asked make sense?  Does the question being asked really indicate that the person asking the question cares about the response?  Does the question being asked go beyond a yes or no type answer?  Also, as the person asking the initial question, always follow-up with the next question.  And then shut up and listen.  Make sure you’re asking a question for which you really care about the answer.

    • Sound advice Jon! You’re right on that a good question really needs to go beyond a yes or a no answer.

    •  The “shut up and listen” is a good point. Even for me, sometimes I’m so excited to talk with someone, I barely give them a chance to respond.

  • Joseph, open ended questions such as the one you post above are the best questions. It gives an opportunity for people to really share, there is no easy “no” or “yes” answer to those questions. The idea of a question is to get to a true and honest response. I think that many times we craft questions to gives a “yes” or “no” answer because we really don’t want to know, we don’t want to be involved. But an open-ended question invites dialogue and says that you care. 

  • Good post, Joseph. We do all too often ask the easy questions that don’t require a real answer.

    An observation and a question for you: I’m guessing this is meant to be your contribution to October’s “Discovery” CW blog chain since your name is listed for today, but there’s no reference to the topic or the blog chain in your post. Did you intend this to be that post, and if so, how would you connect it to the topic?

    • Traci, I realized this after you posted. It looks like I had moved the post that was supposed to go out for the CW blog chain to another date. My bad. I’ll make note of it on the CW board and let everyone over there know.

  •  I agree – the “How have you been” question totally kills a conversation. Even though I’m a “talker” if someone asks “how have you been?” I pretty much always just answer “good”. There’s not a lot of places to go with that one, especially because I wonder if they are merely being polite.

    I love this one and I’m going to start using it. “What’s the most exciting event that’s happened to you recently?”

    Yesterday I was talking with someone on Twitter who told me he was involved with some volunteer work – volunteering with 7th grade students in the church youth group. I could have ended the conversation there and just said “that’s cool.” but I wanted it to continue, so I asked “What do you enjoy most working with 7th grade students?” It opened up the door for more conversation.

    I like this tactic and I’m going to start investigating more how I form my questions.

    • That’s great how you moved the conversation forward by asking a probing question. I’m sure you learned more from that question than by giving a dismissive answer. 

      I look forward to the stories you’ll share from asking “What’s the most exciting event that’s happened to you recently?”

  •  This is very helpful, I’m learning how to better ask questions and this really helped me. Great post Joe.

    • Glad to be of assistance to you Dan. Keep practicing and you’ll gradually begin to improve.

  • In interviewing there are closed-ended questions and open-ended questions.  Your post elaborates on the importance of open-ended questions in regards to getting people to open up and describe how they feel.  You’re right.  Open-ended questions are good and leave room for expression.  There are also times that we need to ask closed-eneded questions as they help us to learn details about a person or an event.  A balance of both types of questions can be a good strategy.  

    • True Dan. There needs to be a balance or a knowledge of when to use which type of question. But if you really want to dive deep, I feel the open ended questions bring out a level of depth you don’t get with yes/no type of questions.

  • jeff

    I like to ask general questions.  They give a springboard for people to go into as much depth as they want.  It allows me to sense the direction can go.  I also try to make sure that I’m not limiting the conversation by narrowing it down.  

    Once in a while, I’ll ask very specific questions to spur the conversation in a new direction.

    • It’s great you’ve learned this lesson and try to go for general, open-ended questions. What are some lessons you’ve learned from asking them?

      • jeff

        People have stuff they want to share and get out there, but they need questions to give them an excuse to discuss specific topics – something to center their thoughts.  It’s also a launchpad into new thoughts and questions.

        I’ve also learned that some people have genuine experience, and they’re not afraid to give some advice, because they know very well what they’re talking about and know that they can discuss the issue with firsthand knowledge.  

        Open-ended questions are like closed-ended questions: they allow the mind to focus.

  • Ha, love that first one! I dodged many a conversation with it. But the better version (what brings you to the store today) always makes me talk more…
    Great food for thought.

    • I think we all have Ngina. It’s amazing what changing a few words can do, huh?

  • chris

    Just what I’ve always learned in sales. Never asked a close-ended question – a yes / no response. Use the who, what, where, when, why to draw someone out. Of course if you just want to end a conversation use the close ended question and be done with it!

    • Exactly Chris. Do you have any other good questions to ask?

  • Your post made me laugh. I am in sales and my livelihood depends on asking questions. I know I have asked bad questions.  In the world of solution selling “bad” questions are becoming the new normal. I started to put into practice asking myself a simple questions before I even begin the conversation when I start working with a new client, “How many times has this person heard this question before?”  I pride myself on being different, so part of that is asking different questions.  A simple readjustment of the focus of the question can make a huge difference.  Thanks for sharing 

    • Oh, that’s something else to think about… People get tired being asked the same thing over and over again, making a good question a bad question. How do you change up questions and make them different?

      • I just try to put myself in the position of the person I am asking the question too. I work with people that are being called on by sales people all day long.  I really do not want to fall into that pool, so by adjusting the question to fit their world I find it is helpful in overcoming resistance. Sometimes it just real simple straight forward stuff. One way that I usually do this is by adding “I am curious about”.. This typically opens the other person up to talking because I am truly interested in their situation.

  • Brian K Wright

    This is really great, Joe! Asking great questions is what gets the conversation going. I remember being in a music store right before Christmas a few years ago. The sales person assumed that I was shopping for myself that day, when I was just browsing and thinking about what I might get my parents as a gift. The sales person did NOT ask who I was shopping for, but perhaps he should have.

    Thanks for a great post!

    • Great point Brian! The salesperson may have been able to help and give you better direction. What question(s) could he have asked you that would have led you to give an answer?

  •  Thoughtful. When Wal-Mart stopped the question and just went to a greeting, they were onto something. You don’t necessarily want to be questioned as soon as you enter an establishment. 

    I love when people hassle me at a mall.  “Sir, may I ask you one question?”  Me, smiling and hurrying to get past the intrusive person: “You just did. No more allowed.”

    And a recommendation–the book Spin Selling is an excellent overview of asking questions to advance a sale.

  • Carol Peterson

    This is a terrific post, Joe. Sometimes the question may not be a good one, but it can be made better by our attitude.

    Often when I’m at the store and the clerk says, “Hi, how are you?” I respond, “Great.” Then I close my purse, read their name tag, smile, look them in the eye and lean toward them, asking, “How are you today, Steve?”

    It takes them off guard and opens the conversation. It’s still not as good a question as yours, but the attitude and depth of feeling makes it more impactful.

    Great thoughts, Joe!

    • That’s great that you take the time to note the name of the cashier and ask them a question, even if you feel it’s not the best question that could be asked. You’d be surprised how much it affects that person. As a cashier, many are not treated well. To take the time and ask, you’ve done them a great service.

  • Terrie Thorpe

    Thanks Joe, good thoughts and techniques – some of which I have used. Peace and blessings! 

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