If you’re an introvert, have you ever noticed that you tend to be good at asking questions? Do you ever feel that this is just a weakness of yours, something you fall back to when other conversational options seem exhausted? Have you ever wondered how to frame questions like the thoughtful and skilled conversation partner you are (or could be)?
In this article written for the Quiet Revolution community, Warren Berger, author of The Book of Beautiful Questions, contributor to the New York Times, and “Questionologist” column writer, explains how and why questioning is the quiet person’s “secret weapon.”
I am a questionologist.
You may be asking yourself: Is that really a thing? Well, having spent a decade asking questions for a living as a journalist and then another decade writing books about the art and science of questioning, I feel I’ve earned the title (even if it is a made-up one).
What I’ve learned through my research is that asking more and better questions can be hugely beneficial to all of us—in our careers, our relationships, and our daily lives. But I want to focus on why questioning is a particularly important tool for introverts. Indeed, asking questions is the quiet person’s secret weapon—if we can learn to appreciate and exploit that gift more than we might already.
I’ve studied hundreds of successful artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs known for their curiosity and questioning acumen. Most are humble, thoughtful, and reflective, as well as keen observers and good listeners. These qualities help innovators be more attentive and aware, which in turn enables them to formulate better questions about the world around them—and those questions often drive their creativity.
Quiet people tend to have the same qualities as these expert questioners. In fact, many of you reading this may think “I’m already a pretty good questioner.” But have you also experienced the concern that being the person who listens and asks questions may put you in a position of weakness?
This fear that questioning could be a sign of weakness goes back to our childhood—in fact, it’s one of the main reasons children tend to ask fewer and fewer questions as they grow up. One study found that a typical child asks 40,000 questions between ages 2 and 5 (with girls being even more inquisitive than boys). By the time we mature into teenagers, though, the rate of questions drops dramatically—quashed by the sense that showing curiosity may be seen as annoying or intrusive, or an admission that “I don’t know.” And as adults we may feel that questioning is somehow less “impressive” than declaring, explaining, expounding, and advising.
But in fact, being willing to ask questions is actually more an indicator of strength than weakness. It shows you’re comfortable admitting you don’t have all the answers (and you’re not trying to pretend you do). It tells others that you have a curious, active mind that is seeking to keep learning.
Asking questions is also a great way to gain people’s trust and build rapport. It quickly signals to people that you’re interested in them—which is one reason why, as a recent study found, the simple act of asking questions makes us more likeable to other people.
Many quiet people may have stumbled onto the gambit of conversational questions as a kind of survival mode when navigating work or social situations dominated by extroverts. But I suggest that we cultivate this nascent skill in an intentional way.
Start by thinking about questions in advance of an interaction—instead of always asking on the fly. Ordinarily, if I ran into Tom Hanks on an elevator, I’d be tongue-tied; but when I interviewed him once as a journalist I had no problem conversing because I was armed with a set of thoughtful questions. Next time you’re going to a cocktail party or a work-related gathering, ask yourself: What if I approached this gathering as if I were a journalist, looking for stories about the people in attendance? What kind of questions might I ask to elicit those stories?
When you’re asking questions, always lead with curiosity. The more genuine interest you can muster—about a subject you’re discussing or a person you’re talking to—the more authentic your questions will be. True curiosity creates bridges and avoids having the person on the receiving end of the question think you’re being confrontational or judgmental. A simple way to signal curiosity is by starting a question with, “I’m curious about…” or “I’ve been wondering about something…”
Be mindful about the types of questions you ask, going for more open-ended questions as opposed to closed questions (which can be answered with yes/no or a factual answer). What are some things you like about this city? works much better than Do you like this city? And try to avoid rote questions like, How are you? or How’s it going? Rote questions elicit rote answers.
Perhaps most important, embrace the listening aspect of being a questioner. Listening enables you to ask follow-up questions—the hallmark of a good questioner. Try to break the habit of thinking about what you’re going to say next while someone’s talking; focus on what’s being said and use a follow-up to delve deeper (You actually climbed to the top? How did it feel when you were up there?)
If you want some all-purpose examples of engaging questions, check out the accompanying box of my top 7 questions. But don’t rely too much on scripted questions; go with a question that feels right in the moment.
7 Questions to Better Connect with Others
What are you most excited (or passionate) about these days? Much better than What do you do for a living? or What are you up to these days?, because it invites someone to cut to what they’d really like to talk about.
What made you laugh today? Use this instead of How was your day? It’s more specific and focuses on something fun to share.
What have you always wanted to try? Try this not only on new acquaintances but old friends, too—you may be surprised at what you learn. (And be sure to follow it up with, What’s stopping you?).
What problem do you wish you could solve? Leave it open enough that the person can talk about anything from saving the world to shedding a few pounds.
And What Else? Known as the “AWE question,” it serves as an all-purpose follow-up query. Use AWE to try to draw out additional ideas and thoughts. You can ask it repeatedly, but by the third time, signal that you’re going to stop by rephrasing the question as, Is there anything else?
What’s at the top of your list to accomplish today—and is there anything I can do to help? Use this with a spouse, a friend, or your boss at work. They will love you for it.
Why Am I Talking? The “WAIT question,” sometimes used by therapists, is one you should occasionally ask yourself, silently, as a reminder to keep listening to what the other person is telling you instead of interjecting too quickly.
We receive modest Amazon affiliate commissions for our book recommendations; but we only recommend books we believe in!