Questioning Skills

by Steve Roche

Choosing your question

In order to ask good questions we need first to ask: Why am I asking questions? What is my objective?

It might be to:

The types of questions we ask reflect the types of things we can know.

Aristotle
  • elicit information
  • build rapport
  • establish mutual interests
  • develop the other person
  • challenge their thinking...

This awareness informs the choice of questioning approach.

Types of question

No question type is right or wrong. They are simply more helpful and appropriate, or less so. The skill lies in selecting or formulating the most appropriate question to elicit the information and/or response you require. So sometimes you may simply want a yes or no answer, sometimes you may want more information or to know what the other person is thinking – and where they are coming from – and at other times you may want to set them thinking along new lines.

Open

Beginning with ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘who’ or ‘how’, open questions invite the speaker to respond in more detail and to explore within their frame of reference, giving them a choice about how to respond.

  • What happened in your meeting yesterday?
  • How did it go in the interview?
  • Where would you like to go for lunch?

Closed

These are phrased so that the only likely response is either yes or no, or a short factual answer:

  • Are you going to tell your boss about this incident?
  • How many customers were there?
  • What time did you arrive?

They restrict choice and, used inappropriately, may make the speaker feel interrogated, which can lead to silence.

Leading

The leading question indicates that a certain answer is expected:

  • You’re not going to tell your boss about this... are you?

These questions are usually about the questioner’s agenda.

Hypothetical

Open questions of this type encourage the speaker to speculate on the consequences of a particular event or course of action:

  • What might happen if you...?

Focusing on possible consequences can prevent people from taking action. Exploring fears may be helpful.

Either/or

Variations of closed or leading questions, these restrict by offering the speaker only two options when there may be more:

  • Are you going to do A or B...?

Multiple

When asked two or three questions in the same intervention, the speaker is likely to be confused and the response may be ambiguous:

  • Are you going to London if the meeting is off tomorrow or will you cancel it anyway, and if so, what about my report?

Why?

Understanding is rarely enhanced by simply asking ‘why?’ When used to challenge behaviour, it puts the other person on the defensive. Exploring thoughts, values, beliefs, behaviours and fears is likely to be more fruitful. For example:

  • Why do you always... when Bill says...?

The most likely response to this is ‘I don’t know’.

  • What effect does it have on you...? or
  • What do you think is going on for Bill...?

are likely to lead to a more productive exchange.

Selecting question types

Many business processes – such as sales, negotiation, complaint handling and coaching – follow a general pattern of moving from open questioning through to more specific closed questions in order to achieve commitment, action or closure.

All types of question are valid in some circumstances.

Openness is a matter of degree, and is not always easy to achieve.

So what happened?

may appear to be an open question, but in fact focuses the response on the what, rather than the where, when, why or who.

Clean questions were developed in the therapeutic context as one response to this dilemma, for example:

Speaker: I often get this funny feeling.

Questioner: And when you get this funny feeling, what kind of funny feeling is that?

The intention is to introduce as little as possible of the questioner’s agenda. This approach may appear too contrived in business, however.

More practical options include:

  • Non-verbal prompts – such as a nod, a raised eyebrow, or an encouraging gesture.
  • Linking words, such as ‘and, ‘but, ‘because’, which encourage the speaker to go on talking without guiding or interpreting.
Example

I feel uncomfortable talking to Bill.

Because...?

He seems to disapprove of me.

And...?

That makes me feel resentful.

So...?

I want to find a way to deal with it.

But...?

I don’t know what to do.