Asking Questions About Asking Questions – Part 2

Our last blog on questions ( looked at some common deficiencies and pitfalls and left you with a question – how do you think that you could improve your questioning skills right now? This rather assumes two things – that you are aware of how effective your current questioning habits are, and that you want to improve your skills in this area.

Most of us are quite unaware of how we do what we do most of the time, unless and until we get some feedback (which is simply information to help us become aware) – a whole other blog subject. Even then “wanting” to do something about it – weighing up the cost of the effort involved against the perceived benefit of changing – is crucial to anything actually taking place that is different from what we are comfortable with (our existing, well formed habit).

We may not be that bad at eliciting answers from people, but could we be better for our sake and theirs? The answer is almost certainly yes. So here are a few tips…………

Good questions are usually short. “Why is that?”, “How does that work?”, “Why do you say that?”, “What would make that better”, “How can I help?”.

It is best to leave them like that actually and let the other person reply or as Susan Scott puts it in her excellent “Fierce” books, “let the silence do the heavy lifting”. So why don’t we do that?

  • It doesn’t seem like we are doing much or contributing much to the conversation – (this can be driven by how we feel about ourselves and our “need” to contribute)
  • It leaves a silence while the person thinks, which is awkward and so we fill it – (the awkwardness is only in our heads and this can be about how confident we are about our own questioning skills and the “need” to contribute as above)
  • In doing this, I don’t get to let the interviewee know that I have either done my homework, have knowledge or have some answers to suggest – (this can be driven by how we feel really about ourselves and our “need” to contribute, or look “clever”)

What is the pattern that is emerging here?

Good questions are about the other person. The key to really good questions is that they are not about the interviewer at all. If I am secure in my skills and feel confident in what I am doing, then I am happy to take a “back seat” in the conversation or process. You will know when you have asked a really good question, as you will notice the act of thinking taking place – watch for the eyes to move away from eye contact as the search engine kicks in. This is good; so give the person space to think and provide an answer – don’t rush them, fill in the space, make suggestions or anything else. Wait – the answer will come.

Very often when I ask questions, I don’t need or want to know the answer; it is about the person that I am asking knowing the answer, by getting them to think it through.

Good questions provide answers that lead to the next question. Very often the best (i.e. that stimulate the most thinking) questions are those two or three into a conversation flow. These go deeper than, “behaviour” to what drives or causes that “behaviour”, for example. “Why do you think that?”, “What makes that happen?”, “What causes you to feel that way?”, “What is really going on?” – these are just a few……….Listening to the answers – rather than worrying about what to say next – is crucial. The next question is very often birthed in the answer to the last.

Good questions demonstrate interest in the other person. In any leadership or management role, questions are a powerful to way to create a feeling of value in the individuals within the team/group. The questions must be genuine (if they are not “emotional leakage” will give you away) and you must be prepared to listen to the reply. The next question, if based on the response that you have just heard, demonstrates listening, interest, value, concern – all great things to help you in your wider role.

Good questions circumvent “stock” answers and superficiality. One of the most frustrating responses you can elicit at times is “I don’t know”. I am not speaking about factual questions – “What is the mass of the sun?” – as it is perfectly possible that people will not know the answer to that question (which is fine, as they can find out or look it up). I am talking about questions to do with themselves, like those two paragraphs above.

Very often this answer is provided because people can’t be bothered to think it through or do know but don’t really want to admit the answer (to themselves, more than anything else). A great question – try it – to use when people respond with “I don’t know”, is to ask “If you did know, what do you think the answer would be?”. This works well in almost all cases and I have been astonished at how deeply people will think about their reply often coming up with a very thoughtful answer, sometimes surprising themselves.

It is almost as if their brain really cannot resist searching for the answer to such a deep and probing question.

What makes a skilled questioner? There are probably more than listed here, but these would be a great start:-

  • Genuine interest in the other person (this is about your mental preparation!)
  • Short concise questions – keep it simple
  • Listening to the answer
  • Personally secure enough to leave aside their need to show knowledge
  • Clarify what isn’t clear (rather than assume)

And finally……

Why would you want to improve your questioning skills?
How will you set about improving your questioning skills?
Where will you begin?
What do you think will be the hardest aspect to conquer?
When will you start the improving process?
Who will give you feedback?


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, 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 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?