How to Ask Good Questions

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My mom called it \’nosy\’ but I like to think of it as inquisitive. Either way, the fact is the same: I love asking questions. In fact, it’s my superpower and it could be yours’ too.

In my earlier career as a magazine writer, I\’d spent my day calling “the experts.” All manner of authors, celebrities, doctors, researchers, and on and on would take my calls in hopes of getting a little publicity and, in return, they’d let me ask them all kinds of questions.

I wasn’t so great at other aspects of my job (like meeting deadlines or writing ‘fresh’ hooks) but I took pride in the fact that I was genuinely curious. My interviewees would almost always end the conversation with some version of, “You ask great questions” and  I loved it. In some unspoken way, the person on the other end of the line heard me say, “I get you” with my questions—and we both liked it.

“Understand this if you understand nothing: it is a powerful thing to be seen”
Akwaeke Emezi, Freshwater

Now that I’m a dietitian, I\’m in a position to give ‘expert’ advice myself. People constantly ask me what they ‘should’ eat, how much they ‘should’ eat and how much they ‘should’ move. And guess what? I never tell them what to do.

I answer them with questions.

The Greatest Tool for Transformation

I\’ve learned that asking generous questions, simple questions, has provided me with the greatest tool for helping people make the changes they seek to make.

Great questions can change people. Great questions offer transformation that\’s immediate, gratifying, and intense. Great question can open up doors and turn on the lights. One great question can be all it takes to empower someone, to lift them from self-doubt, to help them make connections, or to finally make that crucial step forward.

Clients who bravely let me ask questions often are surprised by the wisdom they see illuminated within themselves. And trust me, when that wisdom comes from within it’s much easier to listen.

Nutrition is simple. Getting people to open up and look inward when it comes to understanding why they are struggling with eating in a way that feels good for them is the real challenge.

If you truly want to help a friend, a fellow parent, or your child when they’re struggling with an eating issue, show restraint and avoid giving them advice. Get curious instead.

The Problem with Advice

Advice tends to shut down a conversation. Advice immediately creates a dynamic that puts one person in a position of authority and (often unwittingly) steals power from the other.

Doling out advice tends to make the listeners defensive or increasingly insecure. When one person-tells the other what they should do, it negates the listener\’s unique experiences, perspective, and values.

Anyone who’s ever posted a question to a facebook group about parenting, eating, relationships, or anything else near and dear to your their knows exactly what I’m talking about.

The Easy Ask.

Great questions are easy, simple and straightforward. Great questions don\’t require any special knowledge, they only require curiosity and silence.  

To ask a great question, root yourself in the belief that the person struggling, questioning, or wondering is the only one that can truly supply the best answer. You must push aside the urge to \’tell\’ them what you think.

Great Questions Build People Up

Great questions build trust and rapport. They often beget gratitude. They require humility and some silence. 

The simplest great question: \’Why?\’ 

\’Why do you think this is happening?\’, \’Why do you think you feel that way?\’, \’Why?\’, \’Why?\’

\’Why?\’ pushes people deeper and helps them get to the true core of their trouble. \’Why?\’ can help someone confront their own ambivalence, which is the true root of so many problems.  

When \’why?\’ is insufficient, here are some more ideas. All are courtesy of Micheal Bungay Stainer, author of The Coaching Habit.

 “What’s on your mind?” This is a \’kickstart\’ question and helps you break the ice and get the conversation flowing.
“And what else?”: This question helps you to uncover and generate new options or possibilities, while overcoming the urge to give premature advice.
“What’s the real challenge here for you?”: This question helps the person focus on the underlying issue to be addressed.
“What do you want?” This question helps people to gain clarity on what they want, which improves communication and decision-making.
“How can I help?” This question is “lazy” because it gets the other person to propose a solution without you having to develop one.
“If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?”: This question gets the other person to consider if she is truly prepared to commit to a decision, rather than jump in half-heartedly. My personal version of this is, \”how hard or easy will this be for you?\”
“What was most useful to you?” 
This helps people figure out their skills and use them to move forward. My personal version of \”what was working for you there? how can we bring that to X?\’

Be generous. Be curious.

Arm yourself with truly good questions and use them to help your daughter, your girlfriends, fellow mothers, and communities members. Be a great example and hopefully others will learn stop giving you advice and simply ask some you some great questions, too!

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