Helping Learners Understand Spoken English

How to Ask Follow-up Questions

Follow-up Questions: The Glue that Holds Conversations Together

A conversation in English consists of a few basic parts. To begin a conversation you need to either make a statement or ask a question. These first questions are initial or starter questions. Follow-up questions come later, after hearing someone’s answer. Follow-up questions are questions that are related to someone’s answer to a previous question.

Examples of statements:

  • I had the worst day today.
  • Today was a really great day.
  • I watched an interesting TV show last night.
  • We have a test next week.
  • Yesterday I had a conversation in English.
  • I’m excited for the weekend.

Examples of initial questions:

  • Have you seen any good movies lately?
  • What do you like to do in your free time?
  • What is something you are looking forward to?
  • If you could take a year off, what would you do?
  • How is your semester going?
  • What are your plans for winter vacation?

Good Listeners

If you make a statement, a good listener will do 2 things. First, they will react (Oh, really?, I’m sorry to hear that., etc.) to express their interest in your experience. Then, they will ask you a question about what you said to keep the conversation going. This question is a follow-up question. It helps continue a conversation. It determines the direction of a conversation.

Without follow-up questions, conversations can easily end or may never begin.

If you ask a question, the person you are talking to should answer and share their ideas or experience. It is then your turn to react to their answers and continue the conversation by asking follow-up questions.

Without follow-up questions, our conversations come to an end (unless you have a talkative partner who is a real chatterbox and just talks and talks and talks…but this isn’t really a conversation-it’s more of a monologue).

A conversation is a back-and-forth exchange of ideas between two or more people. In order to create this back-and-forth, we follow a pattern of questions and answers. Of course, we may tell a story while our conversation partner listens, but when we finish our story, they may ask us questions or we may ask them to share their own experience.

Follow-up questions are used to ask for more details and to try to get our conversation partners to share their ideas and experiences.

First Listen, Then Ask

First, you need to be a good listener. While you are listening, try to find things that you could ask about.

This is a skill that takes practice to develop, but it can be learned.

If you ask someone what they like to do in their free time, and they tell you that they like to read, watch TV, and play games on their phone, you have 3 topics to choose from. You could ask What do you like to read?, What shows do you watch?, or What games do you play?  Choose the topic that interests you the most to begin.

As the conversation continues, you can return to one of the other topics by saying: You said  + mention one of the other topics + ask a question. For example, You said you liked to watch TV. What are you watching these days?  

Open or Closed Questions?

There are two types of questions you can ask: open and closed. An open question requires a longer answer that gives thoughts, ideas, opinions or experiences. Open questions also require more thought than closed questions.

Closed questions are quicker and easier to answer. They require only a one-word answer, like yes or no or a short phrase. All yes/no questions are closed questions. Questions like How old are you? and Where are you from? are also closed questions because they only require a very short factual answer.

While both types of questions are common, if you want to improve your conversation skills, you’ll need to learn to ask open questions. While open questions often require more thought to answer, they also lead to more interesting and enjoyable conversations.

Use Follow-up Questions to Find Common Ground

If you ask Do you like sports?, what do you ask next if someone answers No?

It is important to think about the purpose of a conversation. If your goal is to make a connection and get to know someone, you’ll need to find a topic that interests you both and that gets the person you are talking with to share their ideas and experiences.

Someone who doesn’t like sports may not be able to talk about sports easily, but there are ways to include them in a conversation about sports. You might ask if they ever played a sport in school. Perhaps they have a story to share. You might ask a more thought-provoking question about the role of sports in people’s lives or the pros and cons of sports. Even people who are not interested in sports can participate in a conversation that includes these types of questions.

When the person you are talking to has nothing to say about sports, you need to open the topic up or change the topic so they can participate in the conversation. Think about why you like sports. Then ask them a question related to that. For example, I like sports because it helps me relieve stress. What helps you relieve stress?  or What do you do to relieve stress?

While you may not have a shared interest in sports, there are certain universal human experiences and emotions that can help you find common ground (shared interests or opinions) when trying to have a conversation in English.

Aim to make a connection with the people you talk to, and your conversations will be more enjoyable.

If you would like to learn how to create follow-up questions, continue on to these sentence frames that can help you ask better follow-up questions.

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