Learn how to ask better questions,
with James Manktelow & Amy Carlson.
Garbage in, garbage out, is a popular truth, often said in relation to computer systems: If you put the wrong information in, you'll get the wrong information out. The same principle applies to communications in general: If you ask the wrong questions, you'll probably get the wrong answer, or at least not quite what you're hoping for.
Asking the right question is at the heart of effective communications and information exchange. By using the right questions in a particular situation, you can improve a whole range of communications skills: for example, you can gather better information and learn more; you can build stronger relationships, manage people more effectively and help others to learn too.
So here are some common questioning techniques, and when (and when not) to use them:
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 your town or your address.
Open questions elicit longer answers. They usually begin with what, why, how. An open question asks the respondent for his or her knowledge, opinion or feelings. "Tell me" and "describe" can also be used in the same way as open questions. Here are some examples:
Open questions are good for:
Closed questions are good for:
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 involves starting with general questions, and then homing in on a point in each answer, and 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?"
"Were they kids or adults?"
"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 like this from CCTV footage. It is unlikely he would have got this information if he's simply asked an open question such as "Are there any details you can give me about what you saw?"
When using funnel questioning, start with closed questions. As you progress through the tunnel, start using more open questions.
Funnel questions are good for:
Asking probing questions is another strategy for finding out more detail. Sometimes it's as simple as asking your respondent for an example, to help you understand a statement they have made. At other times, you 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?"
An effective way of probing is to use the 5 Whys method, which can help you quickly get to the root of a problem.
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:
Leading questions try to lead the respondent to your way of thinking. They can do this in several ways:
Note that leading questions tend to be closed.
Leading questions are good for:
Use leading questions with care. If you 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 at all, in that they don't expect an answer. They're really just statements phrased in question form: "Isn't John's design work so creative?"
People use rhetorical questions because they are engaging for the listener – as 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 colors 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:
You have probably used all of these questioning techniques before in your everyday life, at work and at home. But by consciously applying the appropriate kind of questioning, you can gain the information, response or outcome that you want even more effectively.
Questions are a powerful way of:
Make sure that you give the person you're questioning enough time to respond. This may need to include thinking time before they answer, so don't just interpret a pause as a "No comment" and plow on.
Skilful questioning needs to be matched by careful listening so that you understand what people really mean with their answers.
Your body language and tone of voice can also play a part in the answers you get when you ask questions.
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