questions

Asking Questions About Asking Questions

The ability to ask questions is a deceptively simple skill, and immensely powerful when executed correctly. Yet it remains a largely unused tool in both business and personal life. I never cease to be amazed at what asking a question will do; the impact is very obvious (more of this to follow) and, for the most part people are willing to answer with a degree of honesty and openness (more of this to follow, too).

So what is in a question? Stop for a moment before reading on and consider that question again. I am willing to wager that at some level the very posing of the question to you as you read began a thinking process. What can you find lurking back in the dark recesses of your memory banks that you might have learnt, read, heard or written about questions? Almost like a search engine, we are programmed to search for relevant information, rapidly honing and refining our search until we find something that might be an answer or at least help identify the answer.

What do questions do to us? Have you ever had one of those moments (of inspiration) where you have answered a question – maybe in a pub quiz or watching a TV quiz show – and have remarked to yourself, “How did I know that” or “I didn’t know I knew that”. It is quite probable that you have never required that dot of information previously, or forgotten exactly how it came to be lodged there at all; the questions triggers a trawl through the data-banks. It is almost like we can’t resist. We will think about the answer to a question – and in particular if it is personal – whether we want to or not. So, will questions always get you thinking?

Who are the best people at asking questions? I guess we might all agree that politicians are the best at answering questions – or rather not answering questions – but does that mean that those who jobs are interviewing politicians and other people are good at this skill. Sadly not, it seems. Here is an example of what not to do http://ow.ly/c2lIA, if you can stick with it! I will mention no names, but I have noticed several traits in “professional” interviewers – why not see if you can spot these traits too?

Firstly, there seems to be a desire to ask and then try to answer the question posed – the question may actually be a good one – by providing a range of possible answers, usually prefaced by “is it……..” An example might be “What is the biggest issue facing the NHS? Is it a lack of willingness to change, the ageing population, being over-managed, Government cuts, or the Euro crisis?” What this does is to limit the possible answers to the selection provided – possibly showing how clever the interviewer is, or not if the answer is something they have not listed. The basis for the question being posed in the first place, almost certainly, is that the person who will answer has some knowledge or understanding; so let them select their answer as they see fit. See how many uses of “is it…..” you can find; they are all over the place. Why do you think that might be the case?

Secondly, it seems there is a real “need” for the questioner to demonstrate their knowledge – that they have done their homework. Questions in this mode are long and very convoluted, and often hidden within the lengthy diatribe or tacked pitifully on the end. Usually, in a radio or TV interview time is short and the fact that a significant amount is taken up with the interviewer demonstrating “knowledge”, is a waste of precious time. Let the “expert” do their stuff. What might be the downside of letting the expert do their stuff?

Thirdly there are questions that start with either “presumably”, “obviously”, “naturally” or some other word of similar ilk. These words will be followed by some statement which is either presumably true, obviously true or naturally the case; another preamble to the real question. If the matter is obvious it does not need stating; if it is a presumption then there is no need to presume as the interviewee can, from their knowledge, put that beyond doubt. Ask them. Why might people use these words so freely and inappropriately?

Fourthly, not asking a question at all, but making a statement and leaving a pause for comment. “Tough night for England………….”. This appears to be the laziest form of interviewing; not even bothering to form a question at all! What is the worst thing that might happen in this situation? Why doesn’t that happen every time?

How might asking questions be abused? Since questions are so powerful, they can be used in the wrong way – here is a really good case in point http://ow.ly/c2mcn. This is a great clip to demonstrate how it is possible with well crafted questions (notice these are all closed, requiring only a yes or no answer) to manoeuvre and manipulate your “victim”. Whilst clever (and it happens) it leaves those being questioned feeling like they have been corralled into a place that they would rather not. This technique is part of “influencing” – commitment and consistency – getting someone to make a public statement (even answering a “loaded” question) makes it very difficult for them to later act in a way that is inconsistent with their earlier statement.

This type of questioning is essentially adversarial – as you might find in court – designed not with the other person in mind, but rather with the making of or achieving a stated point of view.

A step further is interrogation, designed to elicit withheld information or confirm statements already made. Here questions will be fired quickly and possibly by different people, but essentially the questions are unconnected to each other –” Where were you last night?”, “How long have you been married?” , “Who do you work for?”, “Where were you brought up?” What time did you come home last night?” This is designed to confuse and get the victim to answer quickly without thinking – likely to be the truth – and answering similar questions over again in the process to look for inconsistencies in the story.

I would suggest that these forms of questioning are inappropriate in most cases that we will face whether at work or at home……….

How do we develop our questioning skills? As with any tool the antidote to non-use or wrong use is correct use – learning to use the tool skilful and appropriately in any given situation. Our next blog on “questions” will pick up the reigns from here and provide some top tips to improve your skills. Whilst you wait for that to arrive – how do you think that you could improve your questioning skills right now?