Questions, questions, questions?!
We use them to seek and obtain information.
But are we asking the right questions to get the best answers?
When we first begin to talk, one of our most-used words is “why”? From that time on, we are on a quest to gather information; to understand how and why things happen, or what something is about. Some of us are naturally more curious than others, and so some of us may ask more questions than others do.
While we all start out asking questions about anything and everything, as we get older, some of us may tend to question less. This can begin in school, when asking numerous questions can lead to a reputation of being “stupid”, or even of being a “smarty pants”. The social pressure can extend into adulthood, where we feel that we need to appear knowledgeable about something. For this reason, we may avoid asking questions which could reveal that we lack knowledge.
When we ask questions, the answers allow us to fill gaps in our knowledge, solve problems, make decisions, understand others’ points of view, stimulate our thinking, and even spark new ideas. But, because we have been asking questions for as long as we can remember, many of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about ‘how’ to ask questions.
So, if the purpose of asking questions is to seek and obtain information, then we need to ask questions that will lead to this result. This is called ‘effective questioning’. The idea is to use a range of different types of questions to draw out the information that we are seeking. This is about questioning techniques. When we know what techniques to use, and as we practice using these, we will develop our ‘questioning skills’.
Everyone is probably familiar with the concept of ‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ questions.
Open questions require responses that offer information about things like knowledge, opinions, or feelings. Open questions usually begin with “What”, “Why”, or “How”: What happened next?, Why did that happen?, How do you do that?
Closed questions result in a short answer, usually a “yes” or “no”; they are useful to confirm facts. Closed questions can begin with words like “Where”, “When”, “Who”, “Are/Will”, “Do/Did”: Where did that happen?, When was that?, Are you ….?, Do you ….?
Two other types of questions to use are ‘Probing’ questions and ‘Clarifying’ questions.
Probing questions are used to find out more detail about something, or to help us understand something.
Examples are: Can you give me an example of ….?, Please explain how this works?, How do you know that ….?
Clarifying questions are used to check that we have a correct record or understanding of information we have received.
Examples are: Can I confirm that …..?, I understand that you mean ….?, My interpretation of that is ….?
If necessary, rephrase an answer in your own words to clarify meaning.
When we are asking Probing questions, we can use some advanced techniques such as:
- use the word “exactly” to get a specific response:
What exactly do you mean by ….?
- ask “what if” to change a scenario:
What if there were more people wanting to …..?
- ask “so what” questions to draw out implications:
Some people are not following safety procedures – so what? (there could be an incident, etc.)
- use the “5 Whys” method to probe more deeply:
Why is that customer upset? (because our service was too slow),
Why was our service slow? (because we were under-staffed),
Why were we under-staffed? (because two people were away sick),
Why weren’t the sick people replaced? (because they didn’t tell us in time),
Why didn’t they tell us in time? (because we don’t have a procedure for that).
From our probing, we have now uncovered the ‘root cause’ of the problem.
The real skill in questioning comes from using different kinds of questions. But skilful questioning is only possible when we listen carefully to what people are saying, so we can be sure about what they really mean. Finally, after asking a question, allow time for the response. Depending on the complexity of what we are asking, it can take one or two seconds for our question to be absorbed, and another two or three seconds to mentally prepare the response.
Here are some tips for our questioning technique:
- Start with Open questions (What, Why, How) to start gathering information
- Use Closed questions (Where, When, Who, etc.) to establish the facts
- Move to Probing questions to obtain more detail or understanding
- Use Clarifying questions to check your information or understanding
- Allow silence after asking a question (rule of thumb – at least 5 or 6 seconds)
- Don’t be afraid to ask ‘dumb’ questions – they can help to clarify some basic points
- Don’t ask multiple-choice questions – they can be ambiguous and confusing
- Don’t ramble – once the question is asked, stop talking
- Don’t fish for a particular answer that you want
- If you don’t understand, don’t nod your head – ask a follow-up question instead
- If you get a non-answer, approach the question again from a different angle
For more on questioning, see: “The art of asking GREAT questions”
Our first free nugget for this Post is a 2008 BNET video: Asking Great Questions – Leila’s House of Corrections (2min:52sec). Leila covers four points: Open and Closed questions, Silences, Follow-up questions, and Listening for responses:
(I note that there are no video controls – Stop, Start, Pause, Volume – on this site)
Our second free nugget is a short 2010 video about questions to use at networking events: 10 Great Questions to Ask at Networking Events (1min:23sec). Although this is a little outside the scope of the Post, it offers some useful information:
Coming next: The Brain – how memory works (in the meantime, enjoy the free nuggets!).