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The art of questioning – Why asking the right questions can make all the difference!

Posted in Articles
communication skills

Asking good questions is probably one of the most important and powerful workplace interpersonal skills.  It’s also one of the most powerful tools available to a manager. Yet it is not something we often stop and think about.

Many problem solving techniques or management tools and models really just provide structures to help us to ask good questions.  We rarely give the questions we ask a second thought. Yet given that these questions can be potentially very powerful, it’s worth gaining a better understanding of how questions can be used effectively.

What makes questions so powerful?

So what questions do we ask, and what drives them? Sometimes we ask straightforward questions, which are relatively easy to answer. At other times, we ask more searching questions which are challenging to answer.

The kind of questions we ask will lead us in a certain direction. If we limit the scope of our questions, then we will often be limited in the kind of answers we seek or find.

Researchers have long known that asking questions which only allow a yes or no answer are inhibiting. There is far more value in asking open-ended questions, which allow the respondent to expand, explain or add value to the questioning process. The same applies to the questions we ask in the workplace.

Why you should ask open questions?

Open questions lead to more than a one-word answer, they provide breadth and tend to start with, where, what, how, when, who or which. They are helpful for:

  • Gaining more detailed and better quality information.
  • Exploring ideas and opinions.
  • Crystallising someone’s thoughts.

Closed questions give a narrow focus and usually provide one-word answers and, although useful in some circumstances, should be used sparingly. They usually begin with: Do you….? Should…? Have…? Could….?

Nonetheless, closed questions can be helpful when: checking facts, clarifying a point or providing some direction to the information being gathered.

Questioning tactics

Questioning skills are not just about being aware of the different kinds of questions it’s possible to ask. The real skill in questioning is knowing how to use the different kinds of questions.

You can begin to develop this skill by thinking about how you might combine different types of questions. This means being aware of how questions can complement each other, but this is not as simple as it sounds. It needs practice before the skills can really be developed.

So how do use questions effectively. One way to think about this is to focus on the purpose of the questions and be aware of the tactics you can apply when using them.  Here are some common tactics you can use in asking questions. They broadly fit three kinds of questioning based on whether they are preliminary, probing or possibility questions:

  1. Preliminary – Initial information and clarification of facts and feeling – mainly descriptive.
  2. Probing – Progressing to probing and analysis.
  3. Possibilities – Future and possibility questions.

Questions to avoid

Developing your tactical awareness of which questions to use – and when, is of course an incomplete picture. You also need to be equally aware of which questions to avoid. Questions that are best avoided fall into three categories:

  • Leading questions – where you suggest the answer in the question – “Do you think that…”Don’t you think that…”
  • Multiple questions – asking several questions at once.
  • “Why” questions – use the word “why” sparingly because it can often be associated with sounding critical or can be a very challenging word.  You can still get similar answers by choosing a different way of asking a question.  For example: “tell me about…”, “what do you think are the reason for…”
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