How to ask questions in English to find out what you really want to know

We’ve seen before how important it is to be able to ask questions in English, but there are times when a simple question isn’t enough to really find out what you want to know.

A good example of this might be in a job interview. People don’t want to give negative answers in job interviews, so if you ask a question like ‘Do you work well in a team?’, the person being asked will usually say ‘Yes’.

Let’s take a look at a few ways to make this question more useful:

1. Make the question open

Use ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ to form a question that doesn’t require a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. When a person can talk at more length, you will gain a deeper understanding about what they are like. You could change the question above to ‘Why is teamwork important in your job?’ to find out more about whether a person really values teamwork.

2. Ask for an example

Get the person to give you an example to demonstrate how he or she has behaved in the past to support his or her answer. Applying this technique to the question above, we could say: ‘Tell me about a time when you worked well in a team,’ or ‘Please give me an example of a time when you have worked well as part of a team’. Allowing the person to state an example gives you more detail to help you form your opinion.

3. Use a hypothetical situation

This is slightly more complex, but can be a very effective way to find out about a person. We usually use the second conditional to talk about hypothetical (imaginary) events in the present or future. Here’s how we form a question with the second conditional:

‘What would you do if…’ + past tense

For example:  “What would you do if you felt one of your team members wasn’t working as hard as the others?

We can use any past tense form after ‘if’ in the same way we would use it in a real situation in the present like this:

Real situation in present:

You have left your car running and you can see someone trying to steal it.

Hypothetical question:

What would you do if you had left your car running and saw someone trying to steal it.

With practice, all of these methods can help you find out more information from your questions. Because these questions can allow your conversation partner give more detailed answers and opinions, you will have more interesting conversations.

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