The Four Agreements to Asking the Perfect Question, in Business and Beyond (Infographic included)

Compass with arrow pointing to answer while all other markers are questions.

“There are no right answers to wrong questions.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

It has been said that the only stupid question is the one not asked. That doesn’t mean all questions are equal, though. I’ve seen many clients provide inadequate questionnaires that ultimately compromise their market research studies. Thus, as someone in the “question” business, I’ve gathered what I call “The Four Agreements of Asking the Perfect Question,” based on the inspiring book The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz.

After all, asking the right question is always inspiring.

These agreements can be employed for interviews, podcasts, webinars, or really anything in life’s box of chocolates—not just for questionnaire templates and other survey methods.

Agree to be empathic



Knowledge and enthusiasm are not enough when finding answers, in any arena. You truly have to be in another person’s shoes—even if it’s taking a snapshot of your respondent’s day, background, or even the very reality he or she doesn’t want to provide answers at the moment. As a Forbes article on leadership explained: research shows that too many business students are primarily being taught personal achievement, and not enough empathy. These may seem natural, except that empathy can easily be replaced with the “people first” mentality, and this is a significant element in business success.

Quote: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” – Hamlet

Agree to be brief



In marketing analysis I’ve heard it say that if you can fit in a tweet, then it’s a good question. Research studies support this, stating that short and sweet questions keep respondents more engaged. Very few can be byzantine in their questioning and get away with it, like Barbara Walters or Jon Stewart. Beyond the entertainment world, concise questions commonly result in concise honesty. The reality, too, is that attention spans are getting shorter—so life is becoming one big elevator pitch…or tweet.

As examples, see the length of some of the most poignant and memorable questions in humanity:

Adam, is that you?
– Et tu, Brute?
– Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?
– Do you want to build a snowman?

Quote: “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.” – Peter Drucker

Agree to be childlike



At some point in our lives, around later toddler age, we stop asking “why?” as much. The world begins to demand answers about who we are instead being interested in what we want to know. Yet as creative journalist Warren Berger wrote in the Wall Street Journal: toddler stage is a time immense learning. Recapturing this explorative and playful persona leverages key lessons. Furthermore, many great inventions came to be because of continuous questioning; and many entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs were notorious for their “why?” tornadoes.

This doesn’t mean be annoying, though. Socrates was an expert at machine gun questions. His secret is that he knew the purpose and direction of the conversation before it even started.

Quote: “Let the boy mature, but do not let the man hold back the boy.” – Philip K. Dick

Agree to be honest



The passive, modern cultural context for honesty is referred to as “transparency.” In market research, informing respondents of why exactly they are in the study and what the data will be utilized for typically results in better statistics. There is a sense of equality and even comradeship. In the rest of the business world, this also applies because it creates that trust factor that is the cornerstone of any long-lasting relationship. As an article in The Guardian elegantly stated:

Transparency and trust combine, in turn, to support sustainable growth. By putting credible social, environmental and ethical data in people’s hands, they can make more informed – and therefore better – decisions.

Quote:  “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” – Voltaire

With the Four Agreements of Questions implemented for market research methods, or beyond, there will be likely improved answers, and therefore richer communication. It’s not necessary to wait until arriving to work or crafting the next questionnaire template, but simply turning to the first person you see in the morning and just asking:

“How are you?”

Then listen.

How to Write a Survey Questionnaire


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