Knowing how to ask great questions is one of the keys to clear and effective communication. Asking the right question in the most effective way can help both the person asking and the person answering.
Questions are a great tool when you’re managing or leading people, when you’re planning, looking for options or making decisions. Questions can help you learn, investigate, be curious, open up possibilities, challenge assumptions and think outside the box.
There are many different types of questions, here are some of them.
The simplest way of categorising questions is think of them as being either open or closed. Open questions invite thought, allow the respondent to choose how to answer, and they encourage a full answer:
What do you think about that?
How will you tackle that problem?
If you want to ask an open question, a great way is simply to start with ‘what’ or ‘how’.
Closed questions seek specific information, often the answers do not require much thought:
When will that happen?
Have you finished the work?
What did Dave say?
Closed questions often seek clarification:
Are you sure about that?
Are we meeting at 2 o’clock?
Both types of question have their uses. We often find it easier to ask closed questions – try practising asking more open questions.
Beyond the simple open and closed questions there are some more sophisticated types.
Directing questions move the focus of a conversation in a way that is determined by the questioner, often they are some way between open and closed:
What do you think about my idea?
What happened the other day when I was out?
Powerful questions are designed to encourage creative thinking, or thinking ‘outside the box’.
What else could your boss’ actions mean?
What other interpretations could you put on the events?
Sometimes we need to be more forceful. Challenging questions are designed, as their name implies, to change current thinking, to halt to evasion and confusion:
What has stopped you achieving this outcome so far?
What happens if things don’t work out the way you think they will?
Another way to free up, or open up, someone’s thinking is to ask ‘slide past’ questions. These bypass someone’s usual ways of thinking and any mental blocks they might have. Slide-pasts work by including a presupposition:
What were the lessons learned there? (the presupposition is that there were lessons learned)
What will you do when you’ve been promoted? (the presupposition is the person will win promotion)
We might even combine a powerful and a slide past question:
What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
Finally, some tips for asking great questions:
- Ask short questions, they are more powerful – avoid asking long rambling questions, you won’t get the answer you require.
- Only ask one question at a time – if you ask a multiple question you’re likely to only get an answer to the last one you asked.
- Be careful not to include an answer as you ask the question – just ask a question.
Questioning is a tool, as such we can improve our skill at using it. What are you going to do to improve your questioning skills?
In my next blog I’ll look at some questioning routes – ways to ask successive questions to powerful effect.