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The Art and Science of Asking Better Questions

At the recommendation of Warren Buffett’s Biographer, Alice Schroeder, I’ve been reading The Craft of Interviewing.

Schroeder seems pretty crafty at knowing when, what, and how to ask.

I want to ask better questions. I want to learn to suppress my ego and stop thinking about what I want to say when the other person is talking.

I’ve never been taught how to ask questions, which makes me wonder if I’m getting the most out of the questions I do ask.

If you think about it, asking better questions is really just a clever way to steal from the rich and give to the poor. In this case I’m stealing knowledge.

I have a lot of smart friends — by smart, I mean incredibly smart, not just plain smart — and I want to maximize the knowledge I gain from this privilege when we’re together

Here are some of the things I dog-eared while reading this book that you might be interested in:

  • The interview, generally, may take two shapes: one, like a funnel, and the other like an inverted funnel. The funnel-shaped interview opens with generalities – “What are the benefits of nuclear warfare, Mr. President?” – then pins down the generalizations – “When and were has it produced those spectacular sunsets that you mention?” The funnel allows the subject some say in the direction of the interview.
  • Sherlock Holmes would have been fond of the inverted-funnel; it opens with hard, fast, specific questions, then ascends to a more general ground. Used appropriately this form can help put people at ease. Another way to put people at ease is to start with the easy questions. (Learn to think more like Holmes.)
  • Don’t ever make someone feel as if he can’t get his point across, no matter how hard he tries.
  • Far too many people ask questions that try to put the spotlight on themselves rather than the person with the information.
  • Avoid two-part, hypothetical, and leading questions.
  • People won’t confess their inner thoughts unless they have proof the person asking those questions is sympathetic.
  • Mike Wallace says “The single most interesting thing you can do in television, I find, is to ask a good question and then let the answer hang there for two or three seconds or four seconds as though you’re expecting more.”
  • Envelope tough questions with “people are saying” because that helps avoid the person responding from thinking the questioner is attacking them. (Blame someone else for the question.) Another technique for this is to imply the question is a playful one, “I’d like to play the devil’s advocate for a moment.” You can also preface the question with praise.

If anyone knows of other books on asking better questions shoot me an email.

Buy The Craft of Interviewing.