click to view original photo

How to Ask Informed Questions

The need to ask questions and learning to ask effective questions is essential to a genealogist. This article should help increase your skills.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 993 (approx.)
Labels: Beginner's Guide 
Short URL:

If there is one thing that insures success in researching, it is critical thinking. Beginners often have no idea of critical thinking, how it looks, or how to do it, as applied to genealogy, and so their research becomes a process of trial and error. I don't know what your "brick walls" might be, or precisely where the information you seek can be found, or why you've not found the answers as yet. I can, however, share some effective techniques.

I suggest a question-guided process, the Socratic method, if you will. Many family historians often have difficulty in the following areas:

1. Asking effective questions about their ancestral research.

2. Finding and/or developing appropriate answers to those questions.

3. Presenting their findings in productive ways.

Asking Questions in an Interview

Questions come in two basic groups, open and closed.

Ask OPEN questions to engage another person in conversation. Open questions literally "open up" the dialogue. Open questions require more than a word or two to answer adequately. Open questions generally begin with What, How, Who, When, and Why. Caution: too many "Why" questions may come across as confrontational.

Open questions come in different types:

Subjective questions - use these to ask for an opinion. "What do you think about . . .?" "What were his qualifications?" "How do you feel about . . .?"

Objective questions - use these to ask for specific information. "What evidence did the court have?" "How have you been handling this process?" "How did she cope with her father's death?"

Problem Solving questions - ask these when you want action ideas. "Where else would you suggest I look?" "How would you implement the steps we just discussed?"

Use CLOSED questions when you want to inhibit long discussion. Closed questions can be answered adequately in only a few words. Closed questions often begin with Was, Can, Did, Do, etc.

Closed questions also come in different types:

Identification questions - "Where did she live?" "Who was his wife?"

Selection questions - these are either/or questions. "Are closed or open questions better at promoting discussion?" "Who is right, Aunt Cornelia or Uncle Horatio?"

Yes/No questions - "Does this court have child custody records?" "Was Aunt Mildred ever married?"

Here's the formula: When you want short, crisp answers, ask closed questions. When you want a discussion, ask open questions. If you want to shorten the discussion, ask a closed question. When you desire a narrative, use an open question.

Some brief rules of courtesy:

1. You are researchers, so RESEARCH afore you ask!

2. Get your facts straight. As Dan Rather discovered, inaccurate information yields inaccurate conclusions.

3. Apply Dr. Covey's Habit, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

4. If a topic is too sensitive for the other individual, let it alone. Show concern for her.

5. Be honest and forthcoming with your agenda. You'll obtain no further information from those who feel misled.

 Asking Questions of Yourself

Try the following techniques to ask and answer questions about your research:

  • Write down everything you know about the subject or "brick wall." Once you can't think of anything more, take a moment to look for details you may have missed. Ask yourself, "Is there anything else?" Include as much information as you can.
  • Organize your data into categories or groupings, by asking, "How do these data fit together?" "What people or events are related and how are they related?" "What general groupings are there?"
  • Ask, "What is the significance of all these data?" "Where do they lead?" "How are they related?" (No pun intended.) "Is there anything that doesn't fit, or that doesn't agree with the facts?" Write an explanation of your answers in a paragraph.

Push Past Your Limits

Remember, when doing these activities that the interesting ideas are those you have not thought of yet. So push yourself past the point at which you think you have said everything that can be said. Always ask questions that you can't answer, and always ask more questions than you can answer.

Don't Just Brainstorm -- Write

Write down each thought you have. There are several reasons to do this:

1. You don't want to forget your thoughts.

2. You will be able to retrace the steps you took to get an idea, so you can learn to deliberately apply those same steps when you are faced with a similar problem.

3. You will have building materials with which to work -- good ideas often come from seemingly trivial or insignificant ideas.

4. Writing down your ideas will enable you to think of more.

Consider the following questions, and generate some tentative answers, customizing them to your ancestor as you go. Then print out your responses, shuffle, and repeat. You should generate better-quality answers using this process.

  • What is the problem issue to be solved?
  • On what data or evidence is the problem based?
  • What inferences have you made from the data, and are these inferences legitimate?
  • What are the biases behind the inferences, selection or collection of data?

How would someone from a related, but different discipline look at the problem, and could an interdisciplinary approach improve the analysis?

These questions will encourage you to do the following:

1. Brainstorm more effectively

2. Look beneath the surface

3. Consider and understand alternative viewpoints

4. Avoid being unduly influenced by "traditions"

5. Decide what you think and why 6- defend and adapt your conclusions intelligently.


What it means to be educated is undergoing change. At one time, the number of facts one learned could measure the extent of one's learning. However, in our data-rich environment, simply getting information isn't helpful enough—you must know what to look for and what to do with it once you find it. In our context, the quality of our learning isn't so much the answers we have at hand, but our ability to ask informed questions and to see what effect those answers have had on people, families, communities, and nations. These skills are essential for Generational Historians, for whom there are increasing demands worldwide and to whom will come unprecedented success.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles