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Effective Questioning: Avoiding Communication Pitfalls and Using What Questions

Asking questions is a crucial element of communication. Whether in a personal or professional context, questions help to clarify, gather information and understand perspectives.

However, there are pitfalls that one must avoid when formulating questions, which can lead to misunderstandings or even conflict. In this article, we will explore some common communication pitfalls involving the usage of “why” questions and the importance of asking effective questions.

Communication Pitfalls and Effective Questioning

Using “why” Questions as Accusatory

The usage of “why” questions as accusatory is a common communication pitfall. For instance, asking someone, “why did you do that?” in a harsh tone may lead to the other party becoming defensive and potentially uncooperative.

In such instances, the individual may perceive the question as an accusation, and their response is likely to be defensive rather than informative. The key to avoid sounding accusatory is to adjust the tone of the question and phrase it in a more neutral manner.

For example, you could say, “Can you explain your thought process behind that decision?” By reframing the question, you are seeking additional information without appearing to place blame or pass judgment. Ill-defined “why” Questions

Broad, ill-defined “why” questions are another pitfall to avoid.

For instance, asking someone, “Why do you feel that way?” is not specific enough and may result in a vague answer. It’s important to ask questions that are clear and precise to obtain the intended answers and ensure meaningful communication.

To make the question more specific, you could ask, “Can you explain what events led up to you feeling that way?” or “What specifically makes you feel that way?” These questions help to provide context and lead to more informative answers. Avoiding the Point with “Why” Questions

Another common pitfall is the usage of “why” questions as a means of shifting focus or avoiding the point.

For instance, if someone is asking you a specific question, and you respond with a broad question, such as “Why do you want to know?” you are avoiding the point of the inquiry. To avoid shifting focus, it’s important to listen actively and pay attention to the intent of the questions asked.

Respond with relevant information that answers the question asked instead of offering broad, evasive answers.

Importance of Asking Effective Questions

Seeking the Root of the Problem

Asking questions to understand the root of the problem is a vital part of problem-solving. Without a complete understanding of an issue, it’s challenging to devise a viable solution.

Effective questions provide context, which helps in understanding the problem more broadly.

Clarity in Questioning

Regardless of whether you’re in a professional or personal setting, clarity is essential in questioning. By being clear about the objective of your question, you can obtain relevant and meaningful information.

Vague, ambiguous questions may lead to irrelevant or incomplete answers, which can be frustrating and time-consuming.

Re-phrasing Questions for Better Responses

Finally, re-phrasing questions can make a critical difference. Contextualizing the question to the person and situation provides clarity, eliminates ambiguity, and sets clear objectives for communication.

For instance, suppose you’re interviewing candidates for a specific role in your company. Using the question, “What are your best attributes?” may result in vague answers.

By rephrasing the question and contextualizing it, you can obtain an informative response, such as “What experience or skills do you possess that make you uniquely qualified for this role?”


In conclusion, effective communication primarily relies on the ability to ask critical questions. Pitfalls exist, such as the usage of “why” questions as accusatory, broad ill-defined “why” questions, and using “why” questions as means to shift focus or avoid the point.

Clarity in questioning is essential, as it helps to obtain relevant and meaningful information. Additionally, re-phrasing questions provides context, eliminates ambiguity, and sets clear objectives for communication.

By being mindful of these communication pitfalls and adopting effective questioning techniques, communication can be more productive, informative, and positive. Benefits of Using “What” Questions

As we’ve explored, the usage of “why” questions can lead to misunderstandings and potentially accusatory tones.

On the other hand, “what” questions can circumvent these issues, allowing for clear and objective communication that elicits specific information. In this section, we will examine the benefits of employing “what” questions.

Avoiding Defensiveness with Non-Accusatory Starts

One of the primary benefits of using “what” questions stems from their non-threatening tone. “What” questions avoid placing blame or singling out any person, instead focusing on the subject matter.

For instance, asking “What are the steps involved in this process?” or “What is your approach to completing this task?” opens a dialogue without being judgmental. The non-accusatory start of “what” questions allows for objective responses and can encourage honest dialogue.

Creating a comfortable, non-threatening conversation sets the stage for an open discussion, creating a positive experience for all parties involved.

Specificity in Questions Elicits Higher Quality Answers

As we’ve mentioned, clarity in questioning is critical. “What” questions are a great way to ensure and maintain specificity throughout the conversation.

Specificity not only ensures that the conversation is more meaningful, but it also elicits higher quality answers. “Who,” “when,” and “where” questions can be too vague, leading to misunderstandings or irrelevant answers.

“What” questions are naturally more specific, which helps providers of information provide concrete facts. When concrete facts are given, the conversation becomes more factual and easier to follow, leading to a more productive discussion.

Getting to the Actual Issue through Clear Questioning

When confronted with a problem, it’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on symptoms rather than the actual issue. “What” questions can help prioritize the focus and ensure that the actual issues at hand are dealt with, even if the symptoms are not as apparent.

Clear questioning can help determine the underlying root cause of a situation and lead to actual solutions. By starting with “what” questions, you can help direct the conversation towards the root cause, which then helps prioritize the discussion.

For instance, ask “What do you believe is causing the problem?” or “What do you believe is needed to solve the problem?” to direct the conversation towards the critical issues. When the real issues are targeted, the discussion can be more focused and lead to a more effective outcome.


Effective communication is all about asking the right questions. It’s critical to avoid communication pitfalls such as “why” questions that can create misunderstandings and defensiveness.

“What” questions offer a range of benefits, including non-accusatory starts, specificity, and direct inquiries. By using these questions, communication can be more objective, factual, and productive.

Ultimately, effective questioning aids in achieving successful outcomes, and it’s a skill that everyone can benefit from developing. Effective communication is essential for creating productive and positive relationships in both personal and professional settings.

Using “why” questions can lead to misunderstandings and defensiveness, so it’s important to use “what” questions instead. “What” questions offer various benefits, including non-accusatory starts, specificity, and direct inquiries.

By using effective questioning techniques, such as re-phrasing and contextualizing, communication can be more objective, factual, and productive. The takeaway is that everyone can benefit from developing effective questioning skills to ensure meaningful communication and successful outcomes.

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