The Importance of Questions

I keep six honest servants. They taught me all I know. Their names are What and Why and When, and How and Where and Who.” …from “The Elephant’s Child” by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)


Kipling’s thoughts are as relevant today as when they were written.  In interpersonal communication, four of those questions take center stage, What, Who, How and Why.  After many years of observing human behavior, I am convinced that we can improve our interpersonal communication if we just focus on these four questions. 


Most people rely on two of the four questions most of the time when communicating.  The key to effective communication is to answer the other person’s questions first and then deal with your own questions.  Once their questions are answered they are willing to listen and answer your questions.


Let me offer an example: I have a client/friend that I have worked with for many years.  She is extremely capable and detailed and in our communication she is always interested in the How and Why of the project.  My questions tend to be the What and Who of any project.  Although we look at the world differently, we work extremely well together because of our mutual respect and trust.  As long as her How and Why questions are answered she if eager to listen to my What and Who.  Because we deal with all four questions we make a very formidable team.



I am frequently asked for strategies on dealing with a team or one-on-one encounters that are stuck.  There are road blocks and people don’t know how to get passed them.  Here is a strategy that has worked.  First, acknowledge that the process is blocked.  You might say, “We seem to be at an impasse.”  Then say, “May I ask a question” and ask “At this moment which of the following is most important, What, Who, How or Why”.  In most cases this will move the discussion along and the other individual(s) will get their needs met.  Once everyone has their question answered the process can continue and you will achieve your objectives.

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