Questioning our questions

Most of us think we are good listeners.  We are aware of the importance of eye contact, about nodding our heads, and about making encouraging noises.  But how conscious are we about the ways in which we ask our questions in day-to-day practice?

When was the last time you thought about the types of questions you ask, and how people answer them?  Here I explore these issues and identify some practice issues.

We all need all sorts of information to do our jobs.  And we need this information from colleagues, users, and customers throughout the day.  Some of it is day-to-day detail and factual.  Some of it is more significant and can have truly powerful results.  This is because we are also interested in feedback, feelings, behaviour and identifying needs and wants that can be met by identifying and responding to individuals.

Questioning is invaluable in anyone’s work tool-box.  Information sharing is all our goal, and it often starts and continues and concludes with questions.  Things like ‘how are you?’, ‘can you tell me more?’ and ‘is that OK?’   Matching the correct question to the right situation is a measure of the skilled communicator. Get it wrong, and they may give you the wrong answer, the answer they think you want, or something that tells you nothing at all.  Think for a moment, how many types of questions can you think of?  Now read on, because I have suggested some here.  However, there are many more:

  • Open questions – these provide wonderful opportunities for people to open up and give lots of details uncontrolled or uninfluenced by you. They can take you in all sorts of surprising directions.  “Tell me what you think about…”
  • Leading questions – these are usually used when the questioner already thinks they know the answer, and assume they will be correct in their assumption. Or when the questioner only wants one answer.  “Do you have any problems with your boss?”
  • Closed questions – these usually receive short answers with no detail, such as yes or no. They rely heavily on the motivation of the answerer to put the effort into talking and giving a more detailed reply beyond a one-word reply.  Often asked when the questioner is disinterested or controlling.  “Do you agree with me this is the best way?”
  • Multiple questions – a single question that upon further focus contains three or more questions in one. These can confuse the answerer and they rarely deliver answers to all the questions asked.  What a waste!  “What did you think about the meeting, and do you think she did a good job, and what needs to happen next?”
  • Extension questions – these give you an opportunity to ask more, or encourage the person to open up further. “What else do you think?”
  • Reflective questions – these use parts of the answer or previous statement and rephrase it to extend the conversation, this can encourage more reflective detail and clarifications. “I was interested when you said that things could be better, can you tell me more?”

Why not have a think about your questioning techniques and use the prompts above to do some invaluable peer observation?  Ask your colleagues for feedback!  Using open and extending and reflective questions of course.  One thing is for sure, make sure you devote equally as much attention to listening to the answer.  Was that useful?

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