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Why Questioning Is Important for Transferring Knowledge and Building Relationships

Reliability leader Carl Carlson believes effective questioning is important to transfer knowledge and build relationships. Are you Communicating with FINESSE?
Reliability leader Carl Carlson believes effective questioning is important to transfer knowledge and build relationships.

Using questions is a skill employed to improve the transfer of knowledge. Learning how to ask the right questions enhances personal connection and communication. This article provides insights into why questioning is important and provides tips for improving questioning skills.


“No one can teach, if by teaching we mean the transmission of knowledge, in any mechanical fashion, from one person to another. The most that can be done is that one person who is more knowledgeable than another can, by asking a series of questions, stimulate the other to think, and so cause him to learn for himself.”  - Socrates


The philosophy of questioning

A curious mind is open to learning and interacting with others. Oxford English Dictionary defines “curiosity” as “a strong desire to know or learn something.” At the core of curiosity is asking questions. Proper use of questions opens the door to discovery: instructors enhance their teaching, students improve their learning, and individuals connect with others, and enjoy lifelong relationships.


No one says it better than Albert Einstein:

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day." - Life Magazine, May 2, 1955


Enhance learning with questioning

Which way brings about better learning? Do you learn more by listening to a lecture or by interactive dialog? Or both?


Using questions is a skill employed to improve the transfer of knowledge from a teacher to students. Whether you are teaching reliability engineering or any other course material, regular and frequent questions asked of students stimulates their thinking and aids learning.

It goes without saying that an instructor should always answer student questions. If an instructor does not immediately know the answer, follow-up is essential. No student question should go unanswered. In addition, each and every student should be challenged to put the principle being taught into his or her own words and share how they would apply the principle under a variety of anticipated circumstances.


Be methodical in questioning each and every student in a balanced and respectful manner. People learn by thinking, doing, trying, and even failing. Enhancing your questioning skills will enhance your teaching skills.


Tip: One of the barriers to meaningful questioning is an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Plato talks about teachers using an “ignorant mindset” to compel students to explain things. It takes a bit of humility for the person who is speaking or presenting to step back and ask the audience or the listener a question to stimulate thinking before announcing the answer.

Keys to learning (from student perspective)

  1. Realize you do not already know the course material, and there is something to be learned.

  2. Answer challenging questions from the instructor, thereby gaining mastery of course material sufficiently well to be able to explain it to others.

  3. Answer challenging questions from the instructor about how to apply course material in a variety of anticipated environments and applications.

  4. Practice, practice, practice.


Improve personal communication with questioning

Which way brings about better communication between you and another? Someone who asks you a meaningful question and listens to your answer? Or, someone who tells you what they believe you want to hear? Why?


Learning how to ask the right questions of another person is a skill worth mastering. It enhances personal connection and communication. Asking questions while actively listening may include clarifying or open-ended questions, which aid in fully understanding what the other person is communicating. Posing questions when learning helps you explore and understand new concepts, broadens your awareness, and invites additional information.


A person who asks questions well does so deliberately to improve the conversation, discussion, or learning opportunity. A great questioner poses genuine and honest questions and does not use questions to embarrass others or conceal information.


How can you improve your questioning skills?

The way to get better at questioning is to practice. Ask more questions, including follow-up questions. Questions that elicit more information or deeper understanding help drive the conversation to a deeper level.


As with any question, you should use active listening skills. After you have asked the question, you need to listen to the full and complete response. This often leads to the next appropriate question and continues the discussion. Be genuinely interested in who you are talking with and focus on what the other person says. Demonstrate your interest with meaningful questions and listen carefully to the answers.


Some questions may not have an answer. That is ok. Some questions may require additional information that may take some time to gather.


Different types of questions

Leading Questions

Leading questions can invite further discussion and help to move the conversion in a new direction. Example: Would it be helpful to conduct FMEA earlier?


Tip: Because they also can bias the answer to what is expected as a response, you should be careful about asking questions that evoke an expected answer.


Clarifying Questions

Clarifying questions can explore and enhance knowledge. Example: What did you mean by the term “thingamajig”? Ask if you don’t understand a concept or use of a word. When you genuinely do not understand something, ask for clarification.


Tip: Asking for more information on a topic the other person knows you already know, or should know, may come across as deceitful or trying to challenge the other person.


Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions can be helpful to facilitate continued engagement in a non-confrontational way. Example: What assumptions are being used in the system reliability model? Open-ended questions can help prevent the other person from feeling interrogated. It also allows the other person to provide unexpected information.


Tip: While you may prepare questions you would like to ask someone in an upcoming conversation, they should be asked casually as a natural part of the conversation. Rapport matters to get clear and complete responses.


Questions In Group Settings

Asking questions in a group setting, as opposed to during a one-to-one situation, can elicit certain group dynamics. You may want to be cautious about or alter a response depending on who else is in the room. Sometimes people pose questions simply to enhance their status within the group. In such cases, you can reply politely, then redirect and focus your questions and listening on genuine topics in which the group is most interested.


Tip: When in a group setting, knowing your audience is essential to creating good responses to questions. Prepare for group discussions by learning the culture and values of your audience.  



One of the core tenets of good teaching is to use questioning to augment learning, and this skill can be practiced and learned.


Similarly, when communicating with another or others, asking questions is a way to learn and build stronger relationships. How you ask a question, given its context and intent, conveys interest in the topic or person and the honest desire to learn. Asking questions is also a way to transfer knowledge, which, after all, is one of our primary objectives.


[This article uses material from chapter 11 of The Process of Reliability Engineering, by Carl S. Carlson and Fred Schenkelberg.]




Carl S. Carlson is a consultant and instructor in the areas of FMEA, reliability program planning and other reliability engineering disciplines, supporting over one hundred clients from a wide cross-section of industries. He has over 40 years of experience in reliability testing, engineering, and management positions.

Previously, Mr. Carlson worked with ReliaSoft Corporation as a senior consultant. Before ReliaSoft, he worked at General Motors, as senior manager for the Advanced Reliability Group. His responsibilities included FMEAs for North American operations and developing advanced reliability methods. Previous to General Motors, he worked as a R&D Engineer for Litton Systems, Inertial Navigation Division.

Mr. Carlson co-chaired the cross-industry team that developed the commercial FMEA standard (SAE J1739, 2002 version), served for five years as Vice Chair for the SAE's G-11 Reliability Division, and was a four-year member of the Reliability and Maintainability Symposium (RAMS) Advisory Board. He currently serves on the SAE 1025 FMEA committee and the G-41 Reliability committee.

Mr. Carlson holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan and has completed the Reliability Engineering sequence from the University of Maryland's Masters in Reliability Engineering program. He is a Senior Member of ASQ and a Certified Reliability Engineer. His book, Effective FMEAs, was published in 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, and in 2023 he co-authored the book The Process of Reliability Engineering with Fred Schenkelberg. He frequently podcasts and writes articles on


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