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Ask Great Questions If You Want Great Answers

Great questions are engaging. They create connections and are rewarded richly with thoughtful responses. To understand why some questions are more engaging than others, consider the brain’s response to questions.

The first consideration is the brain’s neuroplasticity. Brains physically change in response to new knowledge and creative thinking. Neurons shift locations in the brain during learning. They form new pathways to link bits of information and sensations. Questions serve as a catalyst for brains to change in this healthy, productive way.

Next, consider the immediate reaction to a question asked. As one writer explained it, “Questions hijack the brain. The moment you hear one, you literally can’t think of anything else. And that can be a powerful tool.”

The ability of a question to hijack the brain is the result of an instinctive and autonomic response, instinctive elaboration. When you ask a question, you force the listener's brain to focus its resources exclusively on the task of answering your question. This is not something the listener can consciously control. For a brief interval, your question holds the listener captive as they evaluate it and formulate a response.

Research demonstrates that human brains can only think about one idea at a time. Asking a question compels attention.

Here’s what happens next. The listener decides how to respond. The quality of the response will be proportionate to the quality of the question. In other words, you get what you ask for. Good questions get good answers. Poorly formed questions get partial or subpar answers. Great questions get great answers and build bonds of trust that strengthen connections.

The Brain Responds Favorably to Great Questions

By asking a question (any question!), you’ll trigger instinctive elaboration. The respondent’s brain focuses fully on your question. While contemplating a question, serotonin is released to relax the brain and gather insights from all parts of the brain. This is neuroplasticity, forming new neural connections as the brain assimilates information and seeks answers.

Questions that ask for an opinion also increase neural activity in the mesolimbic system, the region of the brain that’s associated with rewards and pleasure.

This all transpires in milliseconds. To prolong the positive response, craft questions that invite others “to express and elaborate upon their thinking and to provide rationales for their thoughts.”Figure asking a great question to another

In a two-year study of Turkish teachers, researchers found that students participated more, retained more, and improved academic achievement when teachers improved their questions to boost neural connections.

This study is revealing in another way. In teaching, managing, selling, parenting, and many other activities, we do more telling than asking. Telling exhibits your knowledge. But it fails to stimulate new neural pathways that signify knowledge transfer, engagement, and commitment from others.

Questions, even when poorly formed, are more valuable than telling when your aim is to build knowledge, connection, and commitment. Quality questions facilitate extended conversations and create higher value for the respondent.

To get firsthand insights about how the brain responds to questions, consider each of these questions, one at a time. Pay attention to your thought process, speed in answering, and emotions accompanying your responses.

1. Did you brush your teeth today?
2. What page of this book are you reading right now?
3. What’s your favorite vacation destination?
4. How do you feel about the current political climate and our elected officials?
5. Tell me about your ideal soulmate.

Progressively, each question required more thought. You instantly answered about brushing your teeth. After a glance at the top of the page, you easily answered the second question. The remaining questions invoked emotions. They invited more thought, more information, and more personal responses.

Great questions are crafted to draw the listener into the conversation and encourage the listener to think, reflect, feel, and share in meaningful ways.

This is a snippet from the new book, DISCOVER Questions® for Connections, Clarity & Control, available on Amazon.