Ask Right Questions, Get Answers You Want

Have you ever been asked a question but didn’t understand exactly what was being asked? Have you ever been prepared to ask a question but didn’t know how to frame that answer? Why are questions so important in the communication process, anyway? Is it simply a matter of insatiable curiosity or is there a specific purpose?

The asking of questions is essentially a drive for knowledge — for an explanation, for information, and for learning. It starts at a young age and keeps on growing as we become adults. Questions help us to clarify our world, solve a variety of problems and provide information to make good decisions.

Believe it or not, there is a strategy to asking and answering questions.

In fact, there are many types of questions that can be used to enhance communication.

We simply must learn to ask the right questions at the right time and to ensure our questions will solicit the answers we are seeking.

There are questions to simply find out information, express an interest in someone, begin a longer conversation, gain control of a conversation, clarify something, or to test someone’s knowledge. Questions also can be asked simply to generate interest in a topic, create attention, or create focus for an inquiry.

These strategies include:

  • Closed questions — a closed question usually invites a brief yes/no response and/or a short phrase. These questions are often used to get confirmation regarding a choice of some sort ranging from "Is that your name?" to "Do you want green or yellow vegetables?" Or, they can ask for a specific fact such as, "Where do you live?" Closed questions can be used to open up a conversation while preventing the communicator to be seen as invasive and/or to simply clarify some facts.
  • Open questions — open-ended questions require the respondent to think about an answer and respond with their opinion and/or feelings regarding a situation. The question allows a broader answer about a situation and often uses words such as "what, where, how, why" or the word "describe."
  • Probing questions — probing questions are used to follow up and discover more information and/or specific details, especially when the answer wasn’t clear. An example might be, "Can you tell me more about that situation?" Or, "What more can you tell me about that?" However, there is a challenge with probing questions in that the listener might become resentful and fearful of your intrusion.
  • Hypothetical questions — hypothetical questions typically propose a scenario for the listener to think about and explore, then provide feedback on the opinion on the situation stated. A question could be stated as follows: "if you were a movie producer, what would your first script be about?"
  • Process questions — a process question helps to outline how to complete a task or to gather information on how a task will be carried out. For instance, "How will this change be communicated?" or "What changes can I make so that the task is easier?"
  • Reflective questions — this type of question asks for follow-on information and shows that an earlier response was heard. The question encourages the respondent to think before responding. For instance, "You mentioned you were going to take a university course. Which one did you decide on?"
  • Leading questions — this type of question is somewhat manipulative in that it is structured to lead the listener toward your favoured idea. The speaker is basically offering the listener how they feel about a subject and they are looking for concurrence.
  • Deflective questions — a deflective question is carefully structured to defuse an aggressive situation and to hit it head-on so that you can move ahead. The goal is to transform a negative situation into a positive one by inserting the word "we" into the question. For instance, if a person complains, the speaker may say, "What can we do about it?"
  • Negotiation questions — questions are also powerful negotiation tools that are usually used to discover the technical aspects behind a counterpart’s proposal and/or how committed that person is to an expressed point of view. An example is a question such as, "Why is this provision important to you?" Whereas questions are used to gather information, good communicators use a technique called "question funneling." The questions begin with a broad open question followed by probing and/or hypothetical and reflective questions and ending with a closing question. Specific questions should be used for diagnosing a situation, exploring impacts and/or visualizing what could happen in the future. Other questions will be used to control the conversation while still others will confirm direction.

Communicators need to seriously think through their conversation, writing down questions and potential responses until there is a clear path to achieving the outcome you seek.

Marilee Adams, author of Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, suggests that communicators need to determine the purpose of their questions. For instance, are you attempting to learn something and/or are you trying to make a judgment regarding a specific choice? Adams suggests a "learner path" of thinking takes us into a whole new direction from a "judgment path."

She also suggests that a communicator must be constantly mindful of their thoughts and feelings and be aware of whether they start moving a conversation into a judgment path.

A judgment path asks questions that are more blame focused by using win/lose questions.

The learner path asks questions that provokes thoughts about choices and are solution focused. Usually, communicators bounce back and forth between the two but the issue is to be much more cognizant of where you stand as the person framing the questions.

The art of asking questions is exactly that — an art. It’s all about getting the right information by asking the right questions. And, yes, asking good questions can be learned.

Source: Active Listening and Effective Questioning, Mosaic Projects, White Paper; Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 10 Powerful Tools for Life and Work, Marilee Adams, Barett-Koehler Publishers, 2009

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