Why You Should Ask Questions Like A 2-Year Old

tough-interview-questionsInterviewing candidates centers on a conversation — a give and take. Your ability to question well supports the organization, competence, and rapport building skills that you bring to that conversation. There are some specific ways to sharpen that ability.

To get an overview of the process, consider this mnemonic device, which reinforces the critical elements of good questioning

2 + 6 over F x 4 = Good Questioning

The parts mean this:

  • Question with the curiosity of a two-year-old
  • Use the six interrogatives: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How
  • Lay that on top of follow-up
  • Make sure to cover all four of the discovery areas: people, places, things, and events in time

This may appear simplistic, but after countless hours of analyzing questioning techniques of White House correspondents, senior executives, criminal lawyers, and many other professionals who have a reputation for asking good questions, the results were shocking. It seems there’s often an inverse relationship between professional stature and the ability to question well. The likely reason is that highly accomplished people tend to store so much in their minds, and require such an abundance of information to do their jobs well, that their questions lack clarity. They reflect agendas and assumptions. They ask for more than one fact at a time. As a result of such convoluted questioning styles, the answers they get often frustrate them: They are incomplete or misleading.

Follow the equation and you will see immediate improvements in your interviewing.

Think like A Two-Year Old

Jim begins classes teaching interrogators how to question with the same scenario. It begins with the class being told to pretend they are two years old and about to see a picture of someone for the first time. And then they see Santa Claus:

“Who’s that?”

“That’s Santa Claus. And he’s coming to your house.”

“Why is he coming to my house?”

“To bring you something.”

“What will he bring?

“Toys. But he’s only coming on one special night.”

“When is he coming?”

“Christmas Eve. And not only is he coming to your house and he’s going to all the houses where children live all over the world — all in one night!”

Article Continues Below

“How can he do that?”

The very sight of the jolly fat man brings out the kid in almost everyone. Anyone who genuinely commits to a two-year-old mentality will probably not deviate from good questions in the Santa Claus exchange.

Use the Interrogatives

A good question should start with an interrogative: Who, What, When, Where, Why. “Do you…” “Are you…” “Would you…” and other variations require a one-word answer only: “Yes” or “No.” An interview is designed to engage a candidate, so narrative responses are essential. Asking a yes-or-no question may get a person talking, but only because he or she instinctively knows that you want more than a yes or no. In other words, if you ask a question like that, you immediately surrender a certain amount of control over the dialogue. This is precisely what those White House correspondents do wrong in press conferences, with the predictable result being that the President talks about whatever he wants to talk about.


Once you ask a good question and you get an answer, you cannot assume that you got a complete answer, or that what you just heard was the only answer. As Jim has told thousands of human intelligence collection students, “After you get an answer, ask that question again.” Particularly with a key question such as, “What work experience qualifies you for the position available?” The first answer may be a rephrasing of language in the job description, hyperbole related to a previous job, or wishful thinking, that is, an answer that the candidate hopes will delight you.

There are two types of questions that allow you to do the proper follow up without sounding like someone who wasn’t listening: Repeat and Persistent.

Repeat Type Questioning

With repeat questions, you come at the same information in two different ways. For example, if you asked, “How many times did you manage trade show logistics for your company?” the person you’re speaking with might respond, “Seven.” Later on, when you’re talking with him about trade shows, you might ask, “What was the toughest challenge you had each time you managed logistics for your company?”  If he responds by telling you about four challenges, you might wonder why you weren’t hearing about seven. It’s not an absolute test, but it either gives value and credence to what he said before, or should prompt more questioning about his experience.

Persistent Type Questioning

In any exchange in which more than one answer might be given to a question, use persistent questioning to get a complete answer. Like repeat questions, persistent questions are also useful if you suspect that the person is not being truthful.

“Where did you travel for your company in a sales capacity?” might elicit the answer, “The West Coast.” Although it’s possible that the West Coast is the only place, it’s logical to follow that question with, “Where else?” Bypassing that repeat question and going straight to questions about where she made West Coast sales calls means that you miss the opportunity to get a complete picture of your candidate’s sales experience in the field unless that information happens to leak out at some other time.

Cover All the Discovery Areas

Go into the interview with questions that cover people, places, things, and events in time. By considering what you might need to know in all four discovery areas, you are less likely to miss asking about important topics.

For example, if you ask the candidate about a project that she has labeled a key accomplishment in her career, you might hear details about where it occurred, what the deliverables were, and how long it took to complete. By adding a people-oriented question — “Who were your stakeholders on this project?” — you might elicit a much clearer sense of how she perceived the mission of the project.

James O. Pyle and Maryann Karinch, are the authors of Find Out Anything from Anyone, Anytime. Pyle is a human intelligence training instructor who worked for the U.S. Army at places such as the Defense Language Institute, the United States Army Intelligence Center and School, and the Joint Intelligence of the Pentagon. He resides in Springfield, VA. Karinch is the author or coauthor of 19 books, including The Body Language Handbook, I Can Read You Like a Book, and Get People to Do What You Want. She is founder of The Rudy Agency, a literary agency based in Estes Park, Colorado.