How to ask questions

The best way to solve a problem is to ask the person who has the key to its solution. Asking the right people the right questions is the pathway to real information - about your workplace, your employees, and your customers. So whether you’re solving problems, establishing a better working relationship, shaping your vision, motivating, interviewing, or negotiating, asking the right questions is a vital management technique. Here are the essentials of effective questioning...

1. Understand the purpose of questions.

Questions are used for a variety of purposes:

  • to get information
  • to clarify a point
  • to keep discussions going
  • to communicate feelings
  • to make another person feel good
  • to gain insight.

Your task is to understand the purpose of your questioning, then to use the types of questions that will deliver the desired outcome. Remember, the more senior your position within the organisation, the more questions you should ask. By asking questions - rather than by attempting to provide answers - you help to keep your organisation ‘open’, tap into others’ accumulated wisdom and insights, and conceal your own agenda.

2. Use the right type of question.

The type of question you ask can influence the response; in the hands of a skilled interviewer, a question can be a powerful tool. For example:

Open-ended questions (Why? How?) These explore opinions and attitudes, encourage others to keep talking, and avoid a yes-no response.

Closed or yes-no questions (‘Did you see…?’) These establish specific fact, elicit a pattern of agreement, or force an unambiguous response.

Leading questions (‘Don’t you think…?) These suggest the required answers.

Reflective/probing questions (‘Are you saying that…?’) These restate or reflect what you’ve heard and invite the disclosure of other information.

Rhetorical questions ('Have you ever wondered why…?') These are used for effect; you do not expect an answer.

Directive questions (‘So you agree that…?’) These focus on desired outcomes.

‘Dumb ‘questions (‘I don’t follow. Could you go over it again, please?’) These test the rationale of why things have always been done in a certain way.

Summary questions (‘So what you’re saying is…?’) These check understanding and confirm your interest.

3. Keep your questions simple and direct.

Good questions are direct and to the point, worded so that the listener has no difficulty in understanding exactly what the questioner wants. If the response to your question is ‘I’m not quite sure what you’re asking…’, your question was not simple nor direct.

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