Think back to the last conversation you had in English. The chat you had with a colleague in the canteen or corridor, or the one at a networking event. Did you and your conversation partner both speak for roughly the same amount of time or did one of you say much more while the other mainly listened?
A satisfying conversation is like a game of ping pong: the ball goes back and forth with both parties asking questions and expressing their views, taking it in turns to listen and speak. If one person never asks any questions, the conversation isn’t balanced – and it’s unlikely that both will find it equally satisfying.
That’s one reason why it’s a good idea to ask questions, here are some more.
3 reasons why it’s a good idea to ask questions
1. Questions build connections.
If you hold a monologue on a topic (even if what you have to say is interesting) or tell long stories (even if they are funny) you assign the people listening to you the role of the audience. They may well tune out thinking: What’s this got to do with me? It doesn’t matter that it’s me standing here listening, it could be anyone.
By asking questions you involve the other person. Whether they then share similar experiences or contribute widely differing views, you’ll certainly get to know each other better.
2. Questions create a positive atmosphere.
I think we all like it when others take an interest in us. When they ask a question and listen intently to our answer, because they want to know more about us and hear our views. It just feels good.
Not asking any questions, on the other hand, can come across as a lack of interest and sometimes lead to resentment: Huh, doesn’t he think I’ve got anything interesting to say? Isn’t she interested in me at all?
3. Questions give you control.
On a tactical level, asking questions allows you to steer the conversation. Imagine, for example, that you want to make the most of a rare opportunity to speak to a certain person. By asking the right questions you can direct the conversation to the topics you’re most interested in, allowing you to benefit from their experience or expertise. Or if there’s some information you need to pass on, you can ask questions to prepare the ground and create a good opening for doing so.
3 reasons why you might not be asking questions in English
If the benefits are clear, why do people shy away from asking questions. Here are three answers I’ve heard.
1. English conversations are hard enough already. I can’t think of interesting questions to ask too.
If you’re not so confident in English it can feel safer to just answer the questions you’re asked as best you can. If you’re already struggling to find the right words and put them in the right order, having to decide where the conversation should go next can seem too much to ask.
That’s understandable. But, as I wrote above, asking questions gives you control. You can use them smartly to steer the conversation on to topics you feel comfortable speaking about in English, the ones you’re familiar with and have the vocabulary for – and may even have practised.
2. I don’t really know which topics I can ask about.
What are you interested in? What would you actually like to find out about the person you’re talking to, their job, interests, views or experience? As long as it’s nothing too personal or controversial, ask about that. In general, common sense will tell you which questions are acceptable and which aren’t. To be on the safe side you can also ask: Do you mind if I ask you about …? I hope it’s not too personal, but I’d love to hear more about … Tread carefully, that way you’ll notice if the other person feels uncomfortable.
3. I always get the question forms mixed up.
Thanks to auxiliary verbs (does, did, has, is, etc.) and the fact that the subject and auxiliary verb are inverted (What would you say …?, Have you ever been to …?) questions really aren’t the easiest grammatical form. It can seem like there’s a lot to think about. But I’m pretty sure that you’ve spent hours practising questions in the past. So if you invest just a little time to brush up on them now, they should soon come back to you. And – as always – the more you use them, the more naturally they’ll come to you.