May I Ask You a Question?

A group of third graders were on a field day trip to the local police station and the sergeant in charge was taking them through the facility. They toured the jail and inspected one of the cells. Then they examined the board where the Most Wanted pictures were posted and said, "These are the people we are looking  for that belong in there," pointing to the jail. One of the third graders raised his hand and said, "Why didn't you keep them when you took their picture?" 

  Children in their innocence often go right to the heart of the matter with a question. When you ask the right question, effective communication occurs. Sometimes the right answer comes when you are two or three questions deep in the conversation. Get information before you give information. Don't be afraid to follow up one question with another.

  In most conversations you want to ask open questions rather than closed questions. Several closed questions may seem more like an interrogation to the person who has been asked the questions, whereas a well-placed open question will allow the person to give you in-depth information without feeling grilled. Instead of only asking, "What is your occupation?" add, "What are some of your professional experiences that have led you to where you are today?" 

  Avoid questions that can place the other person on the defensive such as "Shouldn't you be spending more time on this project in order to get it done on time?"  Don't begin a question with "Couldn't," "shouldn't," or "wouldn't."  Instead you might ask, "What are some things we can do to get the project finished on time?" 

  Don't be afraid to ask questions. You have probably been in a situation where you are a part of a group discussion. The speaker says something that is unclear but none of the rest of the group says anything. You don't ask the question because you feel you are the only one who does not understand and you don't want to embarrass yourself. If you finally get the courage to ask, then you find out no one else understood either. Remember that the only dumb question is the one not asked.

  Sometimes you don't ask for something because you assume the answer will be no. For example, don't take a given fee as the lowest possible price. When you are given a dollar amount for a hotel room, ask "Is that your lowest price?"  Or when you order a pizza, instead of asking for the pizza you want, begin with "What specials do you have tonight?"  All kinds of clichés come to mind with this action, such as "You never know until you ask," and "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

  When you ask questions you are gaining information that can be helpful to you in myriad ways. As Voltaire stated, "When you listen, you have power. When you talk, you give it away."  

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.


Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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