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.
Questioning is the key to gaining more information and without its interpersonal communications can fail. Questioning is fundamental to successful communication – we all ask and are asked questions when engaged in conversation.
5 WH – what, where, who, when and how, but not why!
Traditionally those questions which start with what, where, who, when and how will illicit the information that the coach seeks and can work with for the learner.
WHAT? – a great approach for opening up conversations and beginning to draw out meaningful information from the learner. Also good for beginning the awareness raising process.
WHERE? – helps to begin to get the learner to identify not only the location of causes of issues but also opportunities to apply new behaviours and skills.
WHO? – focuses the learner on identifying who might model the behaviours they seek, opportunities to gain feedback also who can support them when developing new skills and behaviours.
WHEN? – like ‘where’, when helps to pinpoint both areas when there might be triggers to behaviours as well as gaining commitment to actions for change.
HOW? – this gets the learner to consider approaches to implementing their ideas, demonstrating thinking process, at the same time giving them and the coach confidence or need to explore more.
Different Types of Questions To Get The Most Effective And Useful Answers
Closed questions (aka the ‘Polar’ question)
Closed, or ‘polar’ questions generally invite a one-word answer, such as ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For example, ‘do you drive?’ or, ‘did you take my pen?’ They could also include answers to factual or multiple-choice questions, such as ‘what’s your name’, or ‘would you like tea, coffee, or water?’
They are popular as icebreaker questions in group situations because they are easy to answer. Of course, most questions can be opened for further discussion, including closed questions — but more on that later.
Useful for: warming up group discussions, getting a quick answer.
Open-ended questions require a little more thought and generally encourage wider discussion and elaboration. They cannot be answered with a simple yes or no response. For example: ‘what do you think of your boss?’ Or ‘why did you choose that car?’
Useful for: critical or creative discussion, finding out more information about a person or subject.
These questions are useful for gaining clarification and encouraging others to tell you more information about a subject. Probing questions are usually a series of questions that dig deeper and provide a fuller picture. For example: ‘when do you need the finished project, and is it ok if I email it to you?’
Useful for: seeing the bigger picture, encouraging a reluctant speaker to tell you more information, and avoiding misunderstandings.
These questions are designed to lead the respondent towards a certain desired positive or negative route.
In the workplace, you might encounter leading questions such as: ‘do you have any issues with the project?’, or ‘did you enjoy working on that project?’ The former subtly prompts the respondent towards a negative response, the latter towards a positive. Asking ‘how did you get on with that project’ will get you a more balanced answer.
Leading questions could also involve an appeal at the end that is designed to coerce the respondent into agreeing with the speaker. For example, ‘this project is going well, isn’t it?’ encourages the respondent to say ‘yes’. This works particularly well because psychologically, we prefer saying yes over no. So when we’re put on the spot, we’ll usually opt for the former.
Useful for: building positive discussions, closing a sale, steering a conversation towards an outcome that serves your interest.
Loaded questions are seemingly straightforward, closed questions — with a twist: they contain an assumption about the respondent. They are famously used by lawyers and journalists to trick their interviewee into admitting a fundamental truth they would otherwise be unwilling to disclose.
For example, the question: ‘have you stopped stealing pens?’ assumes the respondent stole a pen more than once. Whether she answers yes or no, she will admit to having stolen pens at some point.
Of course, the preferred response would be: ‘I have never stolen a pen in my life’ But it is not always easy to spot the trap. These questions are quite rightly seen as manipulative.
Useful for: discovering facts about someone who would otherwise be reluctant to offer up the information.
As with a funnel, these questions begin broadly before narrowing to a specific point — or vice versa.
When meeting someone new, we usually begin with specific, closed questions, such as ‘what is your name?’ and ‘what do you do?’ – before broadening out into more open-ended questions, such as ‘why did you choose to be a firefighter?’ as you become more comfortable talking to each other.
The reverse — beginning with a broad question before homing in on something specific — is often used when questioning witnesses to gain the maximum amount of information about a person or situation. For example, ‘what do you do for a living? Do you work nights? Did you see a break-in? Was there more than one person?’ And so on.
Funnel questions can also be used to diffuse tension: asking someone to go into detail about their issue distracts them from their anger and gives you the information you need to offer them a solution, which in turn calms them down and makes them think something positive is being done to help them.
Useful for: building relationships, discovering extremely specific information, diffusing arguments.
Recall And Process Questions
Recall questions require the recipient to remember a fact. For example, ‘what’s seven times seven?’ and ‘where did you put the keys?’ or ‘What’s your login password?’ Process questions, on the other hand, require the respondent to add their own opinion to their answer. These types of questions can be used to test the respondent’s depth of knowledge about a particular topic. For example: ‘what are the advantages of asking a closed question?’ or ‘why are you the right person to lead this project?’
Useful for: encouraging critical thought and in-depth evaluation of a subject in tests, interviews, or discussions.
These are a different beast altogether because they do not really require an answer. They are simply statements phrased as questions to make the conversation more engaging for the listener, who is drawn into agreeing with you.
For example, ‘isn’t it nice working with such a friendly team?’ is more engaging that ‘this team is friendly’, which doesn’t require any mental participation from the respondent.
Rhetorical questions are often used by coaches or public speakers for effect to get the audience thinking and agreeing. In this way, they are a not-too-distant cousin of the leading question.
Useful for: persuading people, building engagement.
Develop Your Questioning Skills to Advance in Your Career
Many of us may be good at telling or saying things, or giving instructions, and this is fine if we are effective in handling personal or work affairs. However, it would be great if we give ourselves the opportunity to also acquire skills on the other side of telling – ASKING. What is the difference? Why do we seriously need to ask great questions?
Asking the right question is at the heart of effective communications and information exchange. By using the right questions in a particular situation, you can improve a whole range of communications skills. It spurs learning and the exchange of ideas; it fuels innovation and performance improvement. It also builds rapport and trust among team members.
To find out on how you can improve your questioning skills, do check out our highly-popular workshop: Leading with Questions: How to Find the Right Solutions by Asking the Right Questions (LIVE Stream)