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How to ask more questions and be a better scientist

As the world opens up we get to reconnect with our peers in person and make new connections. Much effort is put into training graduates to ‘make the pitch’ for their research when they first meet someone. But I find asking good questions is a more effective way to connect with others.

Asking questions can take practice. Here are a few tips that have worked for me as I try to learn to be better at this skill.

Asking questions in seminars is also an important skill to cultivate that I’ve covered previously

Be curious

Cultivate an honest curiosity in other people. Often at a conference or meeting there are people we want to meet because we have an agenda. When we meet them we might therefore follow a specific line of questioning

But you’ll gain a much deeper understanding of another person and their science if you ask open questions and see where it takes you. This means listening to the other person for what they have to say, not just asking questions to get what you want.

Let them guide the topic conversation and see where that takes you.

Start with who, what when, where, how

A good place to start is with ‘who, what, when, where, how’ questions. They invite thoughtful responses. Why questions are a bit less specific, and in some contexts can sound a bit whingy or confrontational.

Ask about the journey

Science discussions don’t just have to be about the science. Some of the most interesting discussions I’ve had are about the journey the scientist took to get where they are in their career, or to get to their current research priorities.

For instance:

You can ask people:

And so on. Notice the ‘who, what, when, where, how’

The pause

Learn to be comfortable with a pause in the flow of the conversation. If you can hold the pause without speaking often the other person will continue on the fill the space, sometimes with the most interesting and personal insights that you will hear from them.

People of different cultures and background will be comfortable with different lengths of pauses. My friend who grew up in the country can always out-pause me, she’s comfortable sitting in silence for what feels like an uncomfortably long time to me. Whereas, people from big cities can speak much faster with little or no breaks, or even seem to speak over the top of you (and here’s a great podcast about the ‘pause’).

I wonder….

Not exactly a question, but another tool for getting people talking is to use a ‘I wonder’ sentence. Just put it out then then wait to see what people say. Like:

“I wonder what making a discovery like that would feel like”

“I wonder how you keep inspired in the face of those challenges”

“I wonder if people can access this research and use it for….”

Use questions to facilitate a more inclusive discussion

In any group conversation you’ll notice some people naturally tend to dominate the discussion. This might mean you miss the perspectives of naturally quieter individuals.

It could be around coffee, or in a workshop dedicated to a topic.

Questions can be a great way to draw the quieter participants into the conversation.

If you know the people, then its pretty easy, you can just draw a particular person in with questions like “Dana, you have some experience in this, what have you noticed are the key challenges?”

Its a bit harder if you don’t know the people or its a large group. One way to do it is to use the I wonder questions above. Another way is to say something along the lines of:

“It would be great to hear from an expert on that for what they think about what Dana jus said”

Hope this has helped. Let me know on twitter (@bluecology) if you use any of the tips above and how they went.

Contact: Chris Brown

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