Questioning techniques – the art of asking effective questions

You ask questions in many different scenarios; so whether you’re trying to assess someone’s suitability to do a job, explore how a project is progressing, establish reasons for a performance issue or delve into someone’s career aspirations….

Do the questions you ask help you get the information you need effectively and efficiently?

Do you create more work for yourself by not really thinking about why you’re asking the question? Does this mean you then have to ask another question (or questions)?

You’ve heard the expression ‘fishing for information’, so when it comes to asking questions, do you trawl or fly fish?

Question-mark-and-Morph

In this month’s blog, I’m going to share some tips for asking questions which get the answers you’re looking for effectively and efficiently.

Before you start any discussion, with anybody, anywhere, at any time, I firmly believe that Steven Covey’s 2nd Habit, Begin With the End in Mind, holds true. Considering this first and foremost, before any planning, preparation or action, allows you to focus on the end point, i.e. ask yourself “What do I want to happen as a result of this conversation?” or “Where do I want to get to by the end of the discussion?” Knowing this will help you to formulate the questions you’ll need to get to your destination.

Focusing your questions – Start big then get digging!

The Funnel technique is one way of focusing your questions to elicit the information you need effectively and efficiently. There are three aspects to the Funnel technique: Open, Probing and Closed questions.

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Start the questioning by asking general, Open, questions, e.g. “What do you know about the current business issues?”

Once you’ve got an answer, you can then decide what question to ask next. It may be another broad question or you may want to start to narrow down the topic area by asking a more focused, but still open, probing question to delve deeper in to a particular topic. For example, “How often do you meet with the management team to discuss the issues?”

As you gather the information you need, you begin to funnel down into the detail, gradually narrowing down the scope as you go. As you near the bottom of the funnel, you may want to ask a Closed question to check the facts, for example: “So, you review issues with your management peers on a monthly basis?”. Asking Closed questions at this stage, which test your understanding, also shows that you have been listening!

Before ending the conversation, it’s important to spend time summarising what’s been discussed; the choice about who summarises is up to you although I think it’s good practice to encourage the other person to summarise, as this allows you to check that their understanding is the same as yours! Summarising demonstrates listening, another key skill to have in your toolkit.

Open Questions and how to remember them!

You’ve probably heard the Rudyard Kipling poem which helps us remember the 6 Open questions that we can use:

  • I had six honest serving men
  • They taught me all I knew
  • Their names were: Where and What and When
  • And Why and How and Who!

Another take on this is a picture, that my colleague (Gill Bonello) introduced me to, which has really cemented, in my mind, the 6 ways to start an Open question.

It’s called ‘5 Bums on a Rugby Post’. (Maybe that’s also why I find it easy to remember!) Imagine a rugby goal post which has the bottoms of 5 Rugby players sitting along the cross bar!

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As you can see, the rugby post represents the H of How and the 5 bottoms represent Who, Where, What, Why and When (the order doesn’t matter).

To complete my personal toolkit of Open questions, I have three other phrases to help me get the information I need. These are:

“Tell Me About.…”
“Describe.…”
and
“And what else….?”

Having these in my toolkit, and using them at the beginning of the conversation, allows the responder to give me full and expansive answers to my questions. Equally, if I feel that I haven’t got all the information I was looking for, I have these questions and phrases at my fingertips.

For example: “Tell me about your last meeting with John” or “Describe what happened in your last meeting with John” or “And what else do I need to know about your last meeting with John?”. In fact, just asking “And what else?” is often enough to give the responder an opportunity to tell you anything else that is relevant to that particular topic area.

Trawler Fishing and Fly Fishing

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I said earlier, that the Funnel is about using Open, Probing and Closed questions. We all know the difference between these and when to use them, as much has been written about them. For me, using these questions is a bit like comparing Trawler fishing and Fly fishing! Both will get us some ‘fish’ but the decision about when to trawl and when to use a rod and fly to ‘fish for information’ will depend on your objective.

Do you want to ‘trawl’ and get as much information as possible about your topic, in which case ask an Open question? Do you want to target one particular spot to get a deeper insight, in which case ask a more specific Probing question? Do you want to check or clarify something, in which case ask a Closed question?

fishing

I think that you need to be both a Trawler and a Fly fisher! But one word of caution – when fly fishing, it is very easy to ask Probing and/or Closed questions too early, or when you think you know the answer, in which case you may make assumptions, prejudicing the response. Remember: get the big picture first, then probe down into the detail and avoid making assumptions.

For example, if your objective is to establish why a team is successful:

a Trawler question might be – “What is it that the marketing team does that makes them successful?”

a Fly fishing question might be – “Do you think the marketing team is successful because you all get on well together?”

The first question gives the responder the opportunity to consider the reasons why this may be the case whilst the second ‘Fly ’ question closes down the options by exploring only one avenue.

Do you Trawl as well as Fly fish? Do you use your ‘fishing resources’ at the right time to get the results you need?

What are your favourite questions? What traps, if any, do you fall in to when asking questions and what do you do to overcome these? We’d love to hear what you think so please leave a comment in the box below.

Look out for next month’s blog on The Elevator Pitch – how to get your point across succinctly and with impact.

Posted by Caroline Lewis

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