Last week, we covered the topic of listening. However, there are many aspects involved with how we interact, and one of them is our skill at questioning.
Think of that word, and you may easily imagine American B-movies: a good cop, bad cop, set up; a witness being interrogated. A lamp swung into the eyes of the suspect before they crumble under the glare….the questioning skills we’re going to talk about are nothing like this, we promise.
Here are our top ten tips on how to question others better – to not only understand more, but to get the most from conversations. Some are skills-based, others are more relative to technique and the types of questions that can be used.
Though questions may come naturally in many conversations, and can’t be prepared beforehand, in some circumstances, it’s a good idea to think them through. Such as in a job interview…there will be certain things you have to know, some aspects you’d like to know, and some that may point only to definite answers; all can give you a good impression of the person before you. In many situations, having a good knowledge of the conversation’s topic beforehand is crucial, to better tailor the questions and ensure they’re relevant.
What’s the overall outcome you’d like from the conversation? What do you need to know? One question should ideally lead to the next, so that replies form an unfolding picture. You don’t want to jump ahead too soon, for example, and risk not gathering enough information during the course of the conversation; think of the outcome and work backwards when planning the structure of your questions. This can be called ‘funnelling’ – where questions are quite open at the start but soon dig deeper and invite answers that are more specific.
- How should your questions be answered?
Is the question a closed one, i.e. it only requires a ‘yes/no’ answer, or does it invite explanation? Is it rhetorical? The wording of your question is important, if only to invite the right response. Closed questions can be useful, but open ones give you more insight – which is more appropriate to your situation? Is your question ‘loaded’, i.e. do the words you’ve chosen influence the reply in any way? For example, if you said, “Was Joe Bloggs’ presentation good?’, respondents may automatically think of the positives from the speech. If you’d asked, ‘How was the presentation?’, you’re asking the same thing, but without any prejudgment. Also consider beforehand the likely responses to each question you propose, so that you can edit your next question or move the conversation in a different direction if need be.
Some conversations may cover sensitive subjects, or require complete honesty from the other person. At the outset, establish trust and set boundaries. Make sure the other person knows whether their responses will be confidential – if this is relevant. It could be that they do know this, but it’s good to reiterate such an important point. It could make a huge difference to the whole conversation.
As we mentioned in our previous post, a lot of our communication is non-verbal. Particularly if some of your questions are direct and provocative, if they’re delivered by someone who’s sat back and relaxed, they won’t seem as imposing or threatening. You want to encourage the other person to speak and share; a friendly, open manner will invite more detailed, honest answers than if the other person felt under threat.
How you ask a question can be as important as the words themselves. Too forward and direct, and the question can sound like an interrogation. Match the tone of your voice to the situation. You can even use questioning to put others at ease: “What do you like about working here?’, ‘How’s the family?’, ‘How are you today?’….though these questions may not be relevant to the outcome of the conversation, they will help build rapport and allow the other person to relax.
Part of effective questioning is matching and encouraging everything from your empathy and understanding to the vocabulary and pace of the other person. There’s no point using technical jargon or terms that won’t be understood, nor be bouncing off the walls if it’s obvious that the other person is confused and struggling to keep up. Questions should be appropriate.
You’ve asked your question, in the right tone, and now you’re waiting for your answer. Sometimes, people need to gather their thoughts and work out their response before delivering it; resist the temptation to assume, reply for them, or influence/put words in their mouth. Silence is a good thing; it shows they’re thinking carefully about what you’ve asked.
Probing questions are great when you need to gather detail. One method involves the 5 ‘whys’; start with your lead question on the topic, then to the next five responses from the other person, ask ‘why?’. For example: Why do you think the project is necessary? Front line staff find it difficult to motivate themselves currently. Why has this situation occurred? We have staffing issues. Why do we have staffing issues? The current wage structure isn’t attracting the right calibre of employee. Why do we have an inadequate wage structure? Because the internal policies and remuneration need revising. Why do we not revise them on a regular basis? It needs so-and-so’s say-so…. Grabbing the line of questioning and, like a bulldog, not letting go not only gets to the root of the problem, it eventually leads to the solution: providing the how, where and what, too.
If you’ve followed these tips, you’ll have prepared a mix of appropriate and relevant questions in advance; however, improving your questioning skills also involves your listening and reactive qualities. There may be a response that’s a complete curved ball, but one that’s no less intriguing or necessary to explore. Don’t feel you’ve to always stick to the script, but neither should you go off on a tangent with no hope of coming back. Explore as things crop up, but be able to bring the conversation and questioning back on plan.
Though there are probably many more, we think these are great starting points for anyone looking to improve the way they communicate. What you say is very important, but so is the way you say it. Getting to the root of an issue can be complicated without the right questions; don’t set the conversation up as a needle in a haystack: be clear, concise, encouraging, and a good driver!
Career coaching and management coaching are just two of the services Emerge offer. For more information on these, or any other aspect of coaching, contact us on 01329 820580, or via email@example.com.
Thanks to Ambro at freedigitalphotos.net for use of the image.