Ask The Right Questions

Note from Bob:  I just recently found this marvelous new book!  It is a Great Read! I was delighted when the author, Jonah Berger” gave me his kind permission to “Excerpt” Chapter 3 for you! With so much wisdom packed into this chapter we are excerpting from it over 5 Posts:

Today,  July 8  – “Ask the Right Questions”  BELOW:

July 11  – “Follow Up” 

July 15  – “Deflect Difficulties”

July 18  –  “Avoid Making Assumptions” 

July 22  –  “Start Safe, Then Build” 


Excerpted with Permission from Chapter 3 of “Magic Words” by Jonah Berger

When there’s a difficult task at work that we can’t seem to solve or a do-it-yourself project that proves tougher than expected, there are various ways to get unstuck. We can search online, brainstorm alternative approaches, or use trial and error, hoping to get it right.

There’s a particular solution that we often tend to avoid, though, and that is asking for advice. We could ask a coworker, or call a friend and see if they can help, but we tend not to. We don’t want to bother them, who knows if they’ll be able to help anyway, and even if they can, we’re worried that they’ll think less of us. We think that asking for advice will make us seem incompetent, so we skip it all together.

Could that intuition be misguided?

In 2015, a couple of my Wharton colleagues and a Harvard behavioral scientist asked people to complete sets of brain teasers. They included easy questions like “Who was the first president of the United States?” (A: George Washington) and extremely difficult ones like “What is the correct definition of sesquipedalian?” (A: Tending to use long words).

Participants were told the scientists were interested in how communication shapes problem solving, and so each person would be matched with an anonymous partner to communicate with during the study. Each participant was told that they would complete some brain teasers first, and then their partner would complete the same brain teasers later in the experiment.

After completing the first set of brain teasers, the participants were told that they had done decently well (had gotten seven out of ten correct) but that their partner hadn’t done quite as well (had gotten only six out of ten right). Then they received a note from their partner. For some, the note was just a simple greeting (“Hey there.”) or a few words of solidarity (“Hey there. We’re in this together.”), but for others, a question was added at the end: “Hey there. Do you have any advice?”

In actuality, there was no “partner.” The scientists were interested in how people are perceived when they ask for advice. Whether compared to just making chitchat, asking for advice would lead someone to be seen more positively or negatively. So they paired participants with a computer-simulated partner so they could see how what the “partner” said shaped how they were perceived.

After receiving the message from their “partner,” participants rated them on a number of dimensions. How capable they thought their partner was, as well as how qualified and skilled.

If asking for advice makes people seem less competent, participants should have thought worse of partners who did so. Asking should have made them seem dependent on others or inferior.

But the opposite was true.

When the scientists analyzed the results, they found that asking for advice had made people think their partner was more competent, not less. And the reason why has everything to do with how asking someone for advice makes them feel.

People like feeling smart. They like feeling that other people think they’re intelligent or have valuable things to say.

So asking for advice can make us look smart because it strokes the advice giver’s ego. Rather than thinking we’re not capable or are stupid for asking, advice givers draw a very different conclusion: “Of course my opinions are valuable, so this person is smart for asking for them.”*

In some sense, asking for advice is almost like flattery. When we want people to like us, we often try to flatter them.

But while people like being flattered, they don’t always trust the person flattering them. They’re smart enough to realize that flattery comes with ulterior motives. Consequently, flattery can backfire.

Asking for advice is more effective, though, because it’s less overt. Rather than telling someone they’re great, asking them for advice shows that you hold them in high regard. That you think they’re smart and value their opinion.

Consequently, not only does asking for advice gather valuable insights, it also makes the asker seem more competent. It makes advice givers feel smarter and more self-confident, which makes them see askers more positively as well.


Asking for advice is just one example of a much broader linguistic category: asking questions.

Whether at work or home, we’re constantly asking (and answering) questions. Which solution do you like better? How much will it cost? Can you pick the kids up from practice? By some estimates, people ask (and answer) hundreds of questions a day.

Questions serve a variety of functions. Sure, they collect information or satisfy curiosity, but they also impact how the asker is perceived, the flow of conversation, and the social connection between the people talking.

In any social interaction, though, there are a seemingly infinite number of questions that could be asked. We could ask about someone’s job, their interests, or even what they had for breakfast.

And while some questions seem like they might facilitate social connection, or make the asker look good, others seem less beneficial. Ask someone an embarrassing or intrusive question, for example, and they might not be as interested in talking to us again.

So are certain questions more effective than others? And how do we know the right types of questions to ask?

Click HERE to purchase “Magic Words” by Jonah Berger today

Jonah Berger


Jonah Berger is a Wharton School professor and internationally bestselling author of Magic WordsContagiousInvisible Influence, and The Catalyst.  Dr. Berger is a world-renowned expert on natural language processing, change, word of mouth, influence, consumer behavior, and why things catch on. He has published over 80 articles in top‐tier academic journals, teaches one of the world’s most popular online courses, and popular outlets like The New York Times and Harvard Business Review often cover his work. Berger has keynoted hundreds of major conferences and events like SXSW and Cannes Lions, advises various early-stage companies, and consults for organizations like Apple, Google, Nike, Amazon, GE, Moderna, and The Gates Foundation.


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