I have a three-year-old nephew who, like a lot of three-year-olds, asks a great deal of questions: Can you drive faster? What do plants eat? Why can’t we poop in the tub? Sure, it’s cute, even if it’s also a little exasperating. But for adults who’ve lost that inquisitive nature — which is, ahem, most of us — it should also be aspirational.
Asking questions isn’t just a useful mechanism for getting the salt passed to you at the dinner table. It’s also an undervalued skill set. And while it may sound strange to describe such a simple rhetorical device this way, that’s exactly how psychologists think of it: as a remarkably powerful strategy for improving one’s life in surprising, sometimes counterintuitive ways.
The problem is most adults treat asking questions like we treat touching the door handle of a public restroom: sometimes necessary, but also unpleasant and best avoided whenever possible. One 2013 survey found that four-year-old girls are the most prolific askers, averaging one question every minute and 56 seconds — but it’s not uncommon for that same girl to ask zero questions per day by the time she hits junior high.
The reasons for this decline are varied. Some of us, experts say, become too egocentric to invite viewpoints outside our own. Others are terrified of being seen as a nuisance (a particularly common fear among women, studies show). And still others are afraid of seeming ignorant or incompetent in front of peers, a worry that kicks into overdrive in adolescence and never really goes away. “There are so many vulnerabilities surrounding this,” says Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question and The Book of Beautiful Questions. “It can really feel like questions are a dangerous thing.”
Ask someone for help, and you validate that person’s intelligence, making them inclined to feel more positively toward you.
The good news is that these fears are wildly misplaced. In fact, your most successful and respected peers are likely serial question askers. If you can get past the insecurities and learn to harness the simple power of asking more questions, you may find your life improving in a few critical ways.
You’ll Be More Likable
That’s the result of a 2017 study from Harvard Business Review, which found that people who ask questions make a better first impression and are viewed more favorably by their conversation partners. It’s not just that we like talking about ourselves and therefore tend to like people who give us license to do so (though that’s true). People who ask questions also rank highly in responsiveness, a construct that encompasses listening, understanding, validation, and care.
“You know that Maya Angelou quote about people forgetting what you said and what you did but not how you made them feel?” says study co-author Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. “That’s what question-asking does: It makes people feel heard.” Follow-ups are best for this, since they underscore that you’re listening. And to get a conversation started, steer clear of “What do you do for a living?” Many people prefer not to discuss work in social settings. Instead, choose something with more universal appeal, like, “If your house ever caught on fire, is there one item you’d really like to save?”
You’ll Be Perceived as More Competent in the Workplace
The same study also found that people who seek advice are generally viewed as more capable by their co-workers. While this may seem counterintuitive — we tend to picture office superstars as the ones with all the answers — the rationale is simple: Ask someone for help, and you validate that person’s intelligence, making them inclined to feel more positively toward you. The trick, Berger says, is to “make sure your questions are born out of authentic curiosity,” since anything else will risk making you seem like you’re trying to be the teacher’s pet.
You’ll Actually Be More Competent, Too
For an extreme example of how asking questions can potentially improve job performance, consider the case of the Korean airplane pilots who crash-landed into mountains and runways because they refused to question poor decisions made by their superiors. But even in non-life-or-death work scenarios, Brooks says, “The more time you spend asking questions and deeply trying to understand what other people need and want from you, the better positioned you are to fulfill those needs.” (And, perhaps, end up in a C-suite-level job.) If you’re feeling too anxious to speak up, try asking your questions as soon as they occur to you, so you don’t have time to back out.
You’ll Amp Up the Intimacy
That’s the takeaway from a 1997 study conducted by psychologist Arthur Aron, which found that two people who asked one another 36 probing questions experienced a shared vulnerability that deepened their bond. While the study (which also inspired a viral essay in the New York Times’ Modern Love column a few years ago) focused on forging a connection between strangers, the exercise can create a similar effect between people in a long-term relationship rut, romantic or otherwise.
In a broader sense, question-asking affords us more control over our relationships and that elusive chemical spark we tend to think of as spontaneous. “It’s not accidental who you get close to or how close you feel,” Aron says, and this is one low-effort way to consciously strengthen your bonds.
You’ll Be a More Creative Thinker
Consider the story of Joy Mangano (portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence in the film Joy), who questioned how mops were made and wound up inventing the self-wringing Miracle Mop. Or the creation of the Polaroid Instant Camera, which came about because the Polaroid founder’s young daughter asked, “Why do we have to wait for a picture?” Innovation is all about challenging the existing way of doing things, and asking questions allows you to poke holes in assumptions in order to disrupt the status quo.
To have this type of breakthrough, forget the well-trodden cliché we first heard from our elementary school teachers: “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” There are plenty of stupid questions—and we should ask them anyway. “Brilliant questions are often labeled as stupid because they are so foundational,” Berger says. “When they’re asked, your first reaction might be, ‘That’s so obvious. Why are you asking something so basic?’ But I’ve found that most innovations can be traced back to a question that would have seemed very naive to people within an industry. It often begins with why: ‘Why are we doing things this way?’”
You’ll Be Braver
In season two of the TV show This Is Us, the characters of Randall and Beth Pearson, worried about their 12-year-old foster child acting out, play a game in which they ask each other to list all their worst-case-scenario fears, with no censorship (“She’ll end up in jail,” etc.). Turns out, there’s something to this: “Oftentimes, our fears are a little bit irrational,” Berger says. “So asking ourselves ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ is very powerful. Subject your fears to interrogation.” The result: You’ll feel calmer and more equipped to take bigger, bolder risks.
You’ll Be More Emotionally Intelligent
It’s easy to see how asking questions — and receiving the answers — can make a person more knowledgeable. What’s less intuitive is the fact that question-asking also has the power to increase a person’s emotional intelligence, or the ability to recognize, identify, and properly manage emotions in oneself and others. You’re learning about other people based on how they respond, and you’re learning about yourself through your reactions to those answers. While Brooks’ study didn’t look at emotional intelligence directly, the variable it did measure — responsiveness — is “a near-perfect correlate” for the trait, she explains.
“That’s what’s so exciting about question-asking,” Brooks says. “It’s such a simple tool and immediately effective.” If you want to get a jump-start on boosting your own emotional intelligence, here are 15 questions you can ask yourself.
You’ll Be a Better Leader
We used to think of effective leaders as answer people — the ones with knowledge and authority who don’t necessarily need to ask anything of anyone else. But in recent years, we’ve seen a shift in favor of asking more questions: In a 2015 survey of more than 1,300 CEOs, for example, many highlighted curiosity as a critical trait for effective leadership. In his own research, Berger noted in a Harvard Business Review article from the same year, he “found numerous examples of current-day entrepreneurs and innovators… who relied on curious inquiry as a starting point to reinventing entire industries.”
Asking questions of those under you — Are you having any issues? How do you see this working? — can foster greater engagement, helping people “develop their own intrinsic goals rather than feeling like they’re working towards someone else’s,” says Dylan Selterman, a social psychologist and lecturer at the University of Maryland. This applies whether you’re running a company, a community event, or a household. To encourage people to divulge all they have to say, employ the AWE acronym: And What Else? After a person shares a frustration or an idea, this simple follow-up will give them permission to flesh it out.
You’ll Have More Fun
There doesn’t always have to be an agenda to asking questions. Sometimes the joy is in the asking itself. “Think of curiosity as the itch and questioning as the scratch,” Berger says. “It feels really good. Questioning engages us in life and learning and helps us stop looking at things through the same familiar lens. To have fun in life, you have to break out of those ruts, and questioning is a great way to do it.”