We use questions every single day; they form part of just about every conversation we have – from the basic “Hi, how are you?” to getting more information from friends about what they did/are going to do. We can’t have a conversation without questions. We are social beings and questions keep our conversations flowing as we share information with each other.
As a lecturer, I use questions every day in my classes to check understanding. Questions are used by many people in their work – HR, managers (interviews, disciplinaries, performance reviews etc); sales people and those working in customer services. Imagine how effective your doctor would be if they didn’t ask you questions to identify why you’re feeling ill.
Students too, need to use questions – both when they’re stuck, but sometimes with their studies – I have my students writing job interview questions for example, but when they have to carry out primary research (questionnaires and interviews) they need to write questions too.
This post is going to take you through some of the basic question types and provide some tips about developing the right kind of questions to gain useful information.
There are 2 basic types of questions: open and closed questions. Open questions encourage the person being asked the questions (respondent) to talk, to share information, thoughts and ideas. In most situations you will want to ask open questions. If you are carrying out research to understand behaviours or interviewing a candidate for a job, you don’t want to ask questions where you just get yes/no answers. Questions that result in one word answers – usually yes or no – are called closed questions.
There are, however, other types of questions we will look at too – probing questions, leading questions etc, but they will all be either open or closed questions.
As mentioned above, closed questions are ones which give us one word answers:
- Do you want a coffee?
- Can I check this is your telephone number?
- Do you understand?
- So you’re telling me that closed questions require a yes/no answer, is that correct?
Closed questions allow us to confirm the facts we have or to check understanding. They do have their uses, and can be used at the end of an interview to confirm contact details, for example (my final example above is also an example of confirming understanding).
The problem with the “do you understand?” question is that the respondent might believe they do understand, but when they submit their assessment for marking, I may find out that they are still struggling. An open question would allow me to check their understanding.
“What is the difference between an open and closed question?” is an example of an open question I could ask my student rather than asking the closed question above. This allows them to give me more information, show that they understand – or that they don’t.
Open questions give us lots of information – as above, they allow us to check understanding, but they also give us the opportunity to find out more about people; what they like/dislike, what motivates them. So in my example above, we would use open questions to find out why the Finnish drink so much coffee.
Open questions allow us to collect qualitative data (rich information to help us understand).
Do you drink coffee? (Closed question)
What is it about coffee that you like? (Open question)
Question Words – The 5Ws
There are some words which indicate that we are asking a question:
What, where, when, who and why – using any of these immediately signal that we are asking a question. They also allow us to gather more information and generally should be asked, and answered, to give a full picture of the issue under investigation.
What happened? Where did it happen? When did it happen? Who was involved? and Why did it happen? You may ask the questions in a different order, but as a general principle, you should ask all 5 questions together for a complete and rounded understanding.
There is an additional question word we use too – but not a “w” word – How – how did it happen?
If open questions allow us to gather more detailed information, the 5W and How allow us to gather all the information about an event. To put this into context, lets imagine I’m chatting to a friend who’s just come back from her holidays:
Where did you go? What did you do there? When did you go? How long were you there for? Who did you go with? And why did you choose to go there? However, we might want to ask additional questions, to get more information. These are called probing questions.
When you are asking questions, particularly in formal situations such as job interviews, you may need to ask additional questions to get a full understanding or answer to your question. In some work situations your respondent may be nervous or uncomfortable and may need encouragement to open up. In those situations where your open questions have not provided sufficient detail, you need to make use of probing questions. These are simply additional open questions to seek more information.
To make the best use of probing questions you need to be actively listening to your respondent so you can pick up on what they’re saying and use that information as the basis for asking additional, probing questions. For me, as a lecturer, this is probably when I use “why” questions – to encourage my students to explore their thoughts more – but be careful of overusing why as it can lead to aggressive questioning if you’re not careful.
How does your company manage appraisals? (Open question)
Do you think its effective? (closed question)
Where you do think the shortfalls are? What could you do to make it better? (probing questions)
Probing questions allow us to dig a little deeper to gain a better understanding of a situation or of our respondent’s thinking. There are a lot of situations where probing questions can make a big difference and the more you practice probing questions, the more comfortable you will become. But a key skill to support your use of probing questions are your active listening skills.
There are other types of questions which are suitable to particular situations, which I’m not covering here. But I do plan to cover some of these in the future (interviews for example).
Questions Danger Zone
Just as there are questions I would encourage you to use, there are some, in most circumstances, you should try to avoid, such as leading questions and multiple questions.
We all know that on tv, watching court dramas, lawyers are always being accused of leading the witness – directing them so they get the answers they want. In some circumstances it might be preferable to use leading questions, but if you are looking for an honest answer where the respondent isn’t going to be influenced in how to answer, you want to avoid leading questions. In a job interview, if you ask a candidate if their timekeeping is good, they’re less likely to say no, actually its really poor – they know that if they’re honest they’re not going to get the job.
Sir Humphrey of Yes Prime Minister demonstrates leading questions effectively here
To be effective at asking questions you need to ensure that your questions are clear. You should avoid asking multiple questions (more than one question at a time). If your respondent is feeling nervous or stressed it can be confusing – they don’t know which question to answer first and might forget some of the questions you have asked. Its better to break these down into individual questions, to ask one at a time.
Generally speaking we ask multiple questions because they pop into our head at the time, but if you have planned out your meeting/interview, you will have a list of questions written out – so you should take time to review your questions to ensure that you’re asking clear open and probing questions whilst avoiding multiple and leading questions.
As I mentioned earlier, we need to be careful with overusing “why” questions. Sometimes it can come across as aggressive and/or confrontational. Try a little experiment with a friend where you can only ask questions using why. Start with your friend giving you a piece of information – what they did at the weekend/where they last went on holiday – then ask them questions only using why.
A – Why did you not go on holiday?
B – I didn’t have the money
A – Why didn’t you have the money?
B – I had to pay off a loan
A – Why did you have to pay off the loan?
As you can see from the above example, its getting quite personal and you can imagine the respondent getting quite uncomfortable and maybe defensive with the questions.
Depending on the situation, think about the choice of words when you’re asking questions and where possible, try to rephrase to avoid using why. You are trying to encourage your respondent to open up and answer your questions, you don’t want to inadvertently make them defensive.
“why are you late again?” could be changed to “I notice you’ve been late a few times recently, is everything ok?”
Questioning skills are important to us in everyday life. We use them in just about every conversation we have – we use them without much thought. However, when it comes to the workplace or our studies, there are times when some prior thought and planning allows us to be more effective in gathering the information we seek. Think about the information you want to gather and then what questions will be more likely to give you the information you seek.
I hope youve found this post helpful and i wish you good luck with your own questioning techniques.
if you have any questions please feel free to leave a comment or use the Contact Me tab. Equally if you have any suggestions of areas you’d like to see covered, please let me know.
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