Gathering information is a basic human activity; we use information to learn, to help us solve problems, to aid our decision making processes and to understand each other more clearly, especially as managers with teams.
Questioning is the key to gaining more information and without it interpersonal communications will never work. We find questions and answers critical to uncovering valuable information in the corporate world.
Why Ask Questions?
Although the following list is not an exhaustive list, it does outline the main reasons questions are asked in common situations.
- To Obtain Information – The primary function of a question is to gain information about something.
- To help maintain control of a conversation – While you are asking questions you are in control of the conversation, assertive people are more likely to take control of conversations through questioning.
- Express an interest in the other person – Questioning allows us to find out more about the respondent; useful when attempting to build rapport and show empathy, or to simply get to know the other person better.
- To clarify a point – Questions are commonly used in communication to clarify something that the speaker has said. Questions used as clarification are essential in reducing misunderstanding and therefore establish more effective communication.
- To explore the personality and or difficulties the other person may have – Questions are used to explore the feelings, beliefs, opinions, ideas and attitudes of the person being questioned. They can also be used to better understand the problems that another person is experiencing.
- To test knowledge – Questions are used in all sorts of quizzes, tests and exam situations to ascertain the knowledge of the respondent.
- To encourage further thought – Questions may be used to encourage people to think about something more deeply.
- In group situations – Questioning in group situations can be very useful for a number of reasons, to include all members of the group, especially the quiet ones, to encourage more discussion of a point and to keep their attention.
How to Ask Questions
Being an effective communicator has a lot to do with how questions are asked. Once the purpose of the question has been established you should ask yourself a number of questions:
- What type of question should be asked?
- Is the question appropriate to the person/group?
- Is this the right time to ask the question?
- How do I expect the respondent will reply?
Types of Questions
Questions, in their simplest form, can either be open or closed, however other question types also exist and it may be appropriate to use them, in order to improve understanding.
- Closed questions invite a short focused answer and can be either right, or wrong, yes or no; the choices are limited. Closed questions are effectively used early in conversations to encourage participation, much like an ice breaker and can be very useful in fact-finding scenarios.
- Open Questions allow for much longer responses and therefore potentially more creativity and information. There are lots of different types of open questions; some are more closed than others and they allow for sharing of more information.
- Leading or ‘Loaded’ Questions point the respondent’s answer in a certain direction and involve sharing a judgement about something through the context of the question.
- Recall and Process Questions require something to be remembered, recalled, or ‘processed’ and often require some deeper thought and/or analysis.
- Rhetorical Questions are often humorous and don’t require an answer. Often used by speakers in presentations to get the audience to think; rhetorical questions are, by design, used to promote thought.
- Funnelling – We can use clever questioning to essentially funnel the respondent’s answers; ask a series of questions that become more, or less restrictive at each step, starting with open questions and ending with closed questions or vice-versa. They can be a very useful tactic to find out the maximum amount of information, by beginning with open questions and then working towards more closed questions.
When actually asking questions, especially in more formal settings some of the mechanics to take into account include:
- Being Structured, Sharing Context – In certain situations, for example if you are conducting a research project, it may be necessary to ask large numbers of questions. In these situations, it is a good idea to share context with the respondent before you start. By giving some background information and reasoning behind your motive the respondent becomes more open to the questions. In most cases the interaction between the person asking the questions and the respondent will run more smoothly if there is some structure and shared context to the exchange.
- Use Silence – Using silence is a powerful way of delivering questions. As with other interpersonal interactions pauses in speech can help to emphasize points and give all parties a few moments to gather their thoughts before continuing. A pause of at least fifteen seconds can help to emphasize the importance of what is being asked and allow room for others to say something, or for the initial respondent to continue with their answer in more detail.
- Encouraging Participation – In group situations leaders often want to involve as many people as possible in the discussion or debate. This can be at least partially achieved by asking questions of individual members of the group. One way that the benefits of this technique can be maximized is to redirect a question from an active member of the group to one who is less active, or less inclined to answer without a direct opportunity. Care should be taken in such situations as some people find speaking in group situations very stressful and can easily be made to feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or awkward. Encourage but do not force quieter members of the group to participate.
Asking questions and doing it well is an art form, it involves being curious about the other person, being willing to share information and context. As a manager, you should cultivate the art of asking open questions of your team, dig in further and further, to find those nuggets that don’t always come up in those first answers. Be Curious!
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