“Garbage in, garbage out” is a popular truth, often said in relation to computer systems. If we put the wrong data in, we’ll get the wrong information out. The same principle applies to communication. If we ask the wrong questions, we’ll probably get the wrong answer, or at least not quite what we’re hoping for.
Asking the right question is at the heart of effective communication and information exchange. By using the right questions in a particular situation, we can improve a whole range of communications skills. For example, we can gather better information and learn more, we can build stronger relationships and lead people more effectively.
Open and Closed Questions
A closed question usually receives a single word or very short, factual answer. For example, “Are you thirsty?” The answer is “Yes” or “No”; “Where do you live?” The answer is generally the name of our town or our address.
Open questions elicit longer answers. They usually begin with what, why, how. An open question asks the respondent for his/her knowledge, opinion or feelings. “Tell me” and “describe” can also be used in the same way as open questions.
Some examples are:
- What happened at the meeting?
- Why did he react that way?
- How was the party?
- Tell me what happened next.
- Describe the circumstances in more detail.
Open questions are good for:
- Developing an open conversation: “What did you get up to on vacation?”
- Finding out more detail: “What else do we need to do to make this a success?”
- Finding out the other person’s opinion or issues: “What do you think about those changes?”
Closed questions are good for:
- Testing our understanding: “So, if I get this qualification, I will get a raise?”
- Concluding a discussion or making a decision: “Now we know the facts, are we all agreed this is the right course of action?”
- Frame setting: “Are you happy with the service from your bank?”
A misplaced closed question, on the other hand, can kill the conversation and lead to awkward silences, so are best avoided when a conversation is in full flow.
This technique starts with general questions, and then focuses on a point in each answer, asking more and more detail at each level. It’s often used by detectives taking a statement from a witness:
- “How many people were involved in the fight?”
- “About ten.”
- “Were they kids or adults?”
- “Mostly kids.”
- “What sort of ages were they?”
- “About fourteen or fifteen.”
- “Were any of them wearing anything distinctive?”
- “Yes, several of them had red baseball caps on.”
- “Can you remember if there was a logo on any of the caps?”
- “Now you come to mention it, yes, I remember seeing a big letter N.”
Using this technique, the detective has helped the witness re-live the scene and gradually focus on a useful detail. Perhaps he’ll be able to identify young men wearing a hat with a logo with an “N”. It is unlikely he would have gotten this information if he’d simply asked an open question such as “Are there any details you can give me about what you saw?”
Asking probing questions is another strategy for finding out more detail. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking our respondent for an example, to help us understand a statement they have made. At other times, we need additional information for clarification, “When do you need this report by, and do you want to see a draft before I give you my final version?”, or to investigate whether there is proof for what has been said, “How do you know that the new database can’t be used by the sales force?”
Use questions that include the word “exactly” to probe further: “What exactly do you mean by fast-track?”, “Who, exactly, wanted this report?”
Probing questions are good for:
- Gaining clarification to ensure you have the whole story and that you understand it thoroughly; and
- Drawing information out of people who are trying to avoid telling you something.
Leading questions try to lead the respondent to our way of thinking. They can do this in several ways:
- With an assumption: “How late do you think that the project will deliver?”. This assumes that the project will certainly not be completed on time.
- By adding a personal appeal to agree at the end: “Lori’s very efficient, don’t you think?” or “Option 2 is better, isn’t it?”
- Phrasing the question so that the “easiest” response is “yes” (our natural tendency to prefer to say “yes” than “no” plays an important part in the phrasing of referendum questions): “Shall we all approve Option 2?” is more likely to get a positive response than “Do you want to approve option 2 or not?”. A good way of doing this is to make it personal. For example, “Would you like me to go ahead with Option 2?” rather than “Shall I choose Option 2?”.
- Giving people a choice between two options, both of which you would be happy with, rather than the choice of one option or not doing anything at all. Strictly speaking, the choice of “neither” is still available when you ask “Which would you prefer of A or B”, but most people will be caught up in deciding between your two preferences.
Note that leading questions tend to be closed.
Leading questions are good for:
- Getting the answer we want but leaving the other person feeling that they have had a choice.
- Closing a sale: “If that answers all of your questions, shall we agree a price?”
Use leading questions with care. If we use them in a self-serving way or one that harms the interests of the other person, then they can, quite rightly, be seen as manipulative and dishonest.
Rhetorical questions aren’t really questions, given that they are not expected to be answered. They’re really just statements phrased in question form: “Isn’t John’s design work so creative?”
We use rhetorical questions because they are engaging for the listener, since they are drawn into agreeing (“Yes it is and I like working with such a creative colleague”) – rather than feeling that they are being “told” something like “John is a very creative designer”. (To which they may answer “So What?”)
Rhetorical questions are even more powerful if you use a string of them. “Isn’t that a great display? Don’t you love the way the text picks up the colours in the photographs? Doesn’t it use space really well? Wouldn’t you love to have a display like that for our products?”
Rhetorical questions are good for:
Using Questioning Techniques
We all use these questioning techniques in out everyday life. However, by consciously applying the appropriate kind of questioning, we can gain the information, response or outcome that we are looking for even more effectively.
Questions are a powerful way of:
- Learning: Ask open and closed questions, and use probing questioning.
- Relationship building: People generally respond positively if we ask about what they do or enquire about their opinions. If we do this in an affirmative way “Tell me what you like best about working here”, we will help to build and maintain an open dialogue.
- Managing and coaching: Here, rhetorical and leading questions are useful too. They can help get people to reflect and to commit to a course of action that we suggested: “Wouldn’t it be great to gain some further qualifications?”
- Avoiding misunderstandings: Use probing questions to seek clarification, particularly when the consequences are significant.
- Diffusing a heated situation: We can calm an angry customer or colleague by using funnel questions to get them to go into more detail about their grievance. This will not only distract them from their emotions, but will often help us to identify a small practical thing that we can do, which is often enough to make them feel that they have “won” something, and no longer need to be angry.
- Persuading people: No one likes to be lectured, but asking a series of open questions will help others to embrace the reasons behind our point of view. “What do you think about bringing the sales force in for half a day to have their laptops upgraded?”
We must give the person we’re questioning enough time to respond. This may need to include thinking time before they answer, so we can’t just interpret a pause as a “No comment” and push onwards.
Skilful questioning needs to be matched by careful listening so that we understand what people really mean with their answers.
Our body language and tone of voice can also play a part in the answers we get when we ask questions.
About Luis Soares Costa
From the very beginning, coaching has always been at the core of my passions.
For the past 38 years I have been an Executive and Team Coach working globally with CEOs and their C-Suite Executives, Business Owners and top talent in a significant number of the major global companies (including a significant number of Fortune 500), innovative companies operating in new ecosystems and dynamic family owned businesses.
During the past 28 years, I have also been an Executive and Team Coach and a “consultant to consultants” developing partners and top talent at major consultancies, Big4 Firms and Legal Firms
As an Executive and Team Coach, I partner with you and/or your teams in a “real play” thought-provoking and creative process which inspires you to “connect the dots” and maximize your personal and professional potential. The aim of the partnership is to bring about a sustained behavioral and performance transformation and profoundly shift the quality of your and your team’s working and personal life, whilst maximizing your potential and generating sustainable value.
You can contact me at coach@LuisSoaresCosta.com and visit my Website at www.LuisSoaresCosta.com