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The Art of the Question

September 15, 2010

Asking questions is one of the most important techniques in communication. Relevant questions can clear up areas that are unclear as well as show interest in what the speaker is saying. In presentations, questions enable the speaker to clarify key points, making sure that everyone has understood. But how do you ask relevant questions? Good questions are related to the ability to listen carefully, and then to choose the best type of question in order to elicit the desired response.

QuestionTypes of Questions
We are going to look at five different techniques for asking questions: open, closed, leading, follow-up, and counter.

Open questions
Open questions lead to more information. An example of an open question might be, “How are manuals used in teaching?” This forces the other person to say something other than yes or no. Open questions give the opportunity to receive more information and gain further clarity on the issue at hand. Don’t ask questions such as, “It is important to use questions as a tool of communication. What do you think?” In your introduction, you have already given the answer, which prevents the other person from contributing his or her opinion. There’s a good chance the person will answer, “That is what I thought as well”. This does not give you much information. We don’t know if the person has understood the concept of questions as tools. Instead the question should be: “What do you think about the use of questions in communication?” 

Closed questions
Closed questions lead to yes or no answers and should be used for decisions or for finalizing situations. Use questions such as, “Are you bringing the manuals from the storeroom?” or “Can you sign the contract today?” A closed question does not open up the possibility for the other person to launch into long explanations and it limits possible answers to a bare minimum. Closed questions can be used after a series of open questions or leading questions as a technique for finishing off the discussion.

Leading questions
Examples of leading questions: “This report ought to be redone, don’t you think?” or “What time will you bring in the manuals?” Leading questions can sometimes be used in a similar way to closed questions to explain or to conclude. Here you are sending the other person in the direction you would like to go. Instead of asking, “Are you going shopping today?” ask, “What time are you going shopping?” 

Follow-up questions
Sometimes we will ask a question that goes unanswered (either intentionally or not). When this happens, it is necessary to ask a follow-up question.

A politician on the news is asked some questions. The journalist asks, “People say that the unemployment figures are actually much higher than the published numbers, since they do not take certain categories of people into account. Is this correct?” The politician tilts his head sideways, clears his throat, and says, “We should all join forces and do as much as we can for the job market and in this way…”  

Three minutes later the journalist has still not received an answer to his question about the employment figures. Politicians have an ingenious way of sidestepping when it comes to questions that they cannot answer. A good rule is to follow up the minute you realize that your original question is not being answered. In order to follow up quickly you must be good at listening. The best thing is for you to assume full responsibility for the communication. It is possible that your question was unclear. You should give the other person a chance in case you are the one at fault.

If the other person still does not give an answer to your question, you can use a technique where you go back to the last direct answer you received and begin from there. If the person does not respond to any of this prompting you can either wait, go back to the question, or you can confront him by saying directly, “What are the actual unemployment figures for this quarter?”

Counter questions
Another way of evading a question is to ask counter questions. These can be used when you are asked a question which you do not want to answer or when you would like to find out what your counterpart is thinking.
“How do you think the course is going?”
“I don’t know. What is your impression?”
“How do you think the course is going?”
“Why do you ask?”
When someone asks you a counter question you should note that there may be something that the other person does not want to talk about or something they would rather not reveal. Another reason for asking a counter question is that the person is unsure of your attitude on the subject or lacks confidence in that particular area.

Other guidelines
A guaranteed way of messing things up is to display uncertainty. If you do not know what you are asking, you can’t expect anyone else to. Show that you are sure about what you are talking about. Make your body language and verbal behavior convey that you expect an answer to your question.

When asking questions, your body language should be appropriate. Display positive attitudes, nod a little, lean over towards the other person, maintain eye contact, and make a point of smiling.

An important rule is to use ‘how’ questions rather than ‘why’ questions. ‘How’ questions give you reasons, causes, and explanations rather than excuses.

Proper use of the art of the question can allow you to unlock the doors of the unknown. No matter how smart you are you will never have all the answers. The trick is knowing exactly what you don’t know, and knowing what questions to ask to get the information you need.  Any questions?

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