You’ve probably heard someone say, “There’s no such thing as a bad question.”

People who say that are wrong. There are lots of bad questions.

The Trivial Question

This is the question that could be answered by keying it into Google. Or looking it up in a dictionary.

The Impossible Question

The opposite of the trivial question is the question that has no answer. “What is the meaning of life?” falls into this category. The best answer is always 42.

The Thoughtless Question

Some questions have been given so little thought and are so poorly worded that it’s impossible to tell what they’re asking. If you’re going to ask someone to take the time to think through an answer, at least have the courtesy to take some time to make the question thoughtful.

The Implied Question

More often than not, this kind of question comes in the form of a statement. “I have such and such an issue.” It’s bad because there is no way someone answering can be sure she’s addressing the real point of difficulty or uncertainty.

The General Question

Similar to the Impossible Question, the general question is one that is so broad that it can only be answered by a platitude or by an answer so broad that it had no useful application.

The Multi-Question

A variation on the General Question, this is the question that tries to ask too much all at once, usually conflating two or more issues. This kind of question can sometimes be turned into a good question by rethinking it and sorting it out into two or more distinct questions.

The Overly Specific Question

This is the opposite of the general question. It’s the question that is so tied to only to one specific instance of a problem that an answer can’t be applied to any other case. Usually, these questions are an indication that someone is looking for a shortcut instead of doing their own work.

The Opinionated Question

This question is the one that demands (or implies a demand) a certain answer. Any question ending with, “isn’t that right?”

The Misdirected Question

This is not necessarily a bad question, per se. It’s the question asked of the wrong person. The wrong person might attempt an answer, but it’s really a situation of “your guess is as good as mine.”

The Good Question

Having cleared the deck of the bad questions, what’s left are the good ones. Asking these takes effort, but the effort pays off in the quality of the answers it makes possible. Sorting through the bad questions above gives a clue to what goes into a good question:

  • It’s well researched. You’ve done your homework and gone as far as you can at exploring the issue on your own.
  • It’s aimed at a solvable problem.
  • It is clearly worded to direct attention to the point where efforts to resolve the problem have hit a dead end.
  • It focuses the direction of inquiry on a single issue, and that issue is within a field of knowledge rather than a particular instance.
  • It’s directed toward a person or community that has the knowledge and interest in addressing the question’s field of knowledge.

Away with the “no such thing as a bad question” myth!

Ask better questions. Get better answers.