by Geoffrey Tumlin, author of “Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life“
It’s usually not hard to pinpoint the moment when a conversation goes south. Often, that downward spiral begins with a question. Maybe you ask a colleague, “Why did you format the report like this?” Or you ask your spouse, “Are your parents coming to dinner again?” Or you ask a stranger on the bus, “Could you move over?” These questions — and many others — may have seemed innocent when they were coming out of your mouth. But fail to provide context, emphasize the wrong word, or just forget to add “please,” and you’re suddenly in hot water.
Yes, questions can be tricky territory. The colleague in the scenario above gets defensive, the spouse assumes you hate her parents, and the stranger hears, “You’re taking up too much space, fatso!” Abrupt questions and the unanticipated responses they trigger are a peril of the times we live in.
Consider the ease with which we can turn to the Internet to answer virtually any question. It lulls us into thinking that questions are simple and that answers exist to meet our needs.
Plus, it’s not always easy to divine another person’s intent behind a face-to-face query—and the task is that much harder in the digital age, where we so often lack visual cues and the ability to gather immediate feedback. And the frantic pace of life today just isn’t conducive to thoughtfulness or deliberation, which are two prerequisites of effective questioning.
Questioning is a higher-order communication skill that we haven’t taken seriously for centuries. The days of Socrates masterfully using questions to lead a conversation are long past. Yet even in 2014 we can make an effort to improve our questioning skills — and the first step is to curb our tendency to ask faulty questions.
In general, faulty questions are those we ask to indulge our personal, ‘I-based’ cravings to get an answer, to hammer home a point, or to satisfy a narrow, personal curiosity. Whether they’re critical, tactless, unwanted, offensive, embarrassing, intrusive, or loaded, these types of questions are likely to stifle dialogue and can cause relationships to deteriorate.
Instead, focus on what you can learn from or about another person. This “we-based” perspective, which reflects a broad curiosity about the person or topic you’re discussing, will fuel more meaningful conversations and develop richer relationships.
Here are seven specific tips to help you improve your questions:
1. Clarify your intent.
The inimitable Yogi Berra once said, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going because you might not get there.” Once you untangle that quote, you’ll have to admit that Yogi was right. It’s especially important to know where you’re going before you ask a question, because opening your mouth thoughtlessly can put distance between you and the other person. Think about what you’re trying to learn, as well as your motives and the possible effects of your question, before you ask it. Remember, I-based questions are often better left unasked.
The perception of a meaningful underlying intent is vital to effective questioning. If you believe you’re asking a good question but still sense uncertainty in your conversational partner, clear it up by saying something like, ‘I’m trying to figure out how we might improve our future client pitches,’ or, ‘I’d like to know more about the way you work so our collaboration can be more effective,’ or, ‘I want to learn how the Smithfield presentation went off track so we can try to win them back.’
2. Get and give permission.
No one likes to have their personal space invaded. When you’re asking questions, remember that personal space isn’t just physical. It can extend to others’ memories, beliefs, identities, motives, etc. Before entering these territories conversationally, don’t overlook the simple idea of asking permission: “May I ask you a question?”
You can also tell the other person he doesn’t have to answer. For instance, you might say, ‘Can I ask you some questions about the Smithfield account? You don’t have to answer them if you don’t want to.’ Giving people a sense of control in the conversation and a choice about answering often helps them feel like the conversational ground is safe for responding.
3. Ask open questions whenever possible…
If you are trying to gather information and expand your understanding, you’ll want to encourage the other person to talk more, not less. That’s why open questions, which are designed to be answered in paragraphs, not in a few words, are so helpful. They give the other person freedom to respond and help you to avoid unintentionally shutting off helpful information.
Asking, ‘Did you feel like the Acme presentation went well?’ is structured to produce a yes-or-no response. Even if the respondent tells you more, the question focuses attention on the success of the past presentation, when what you really need to talk about may be something the presenter heard the client say to a colleague or perhaps a funny feeling the presenter has about the client’s new marketing director. These things might come out in response to a closed question about the presentation, but the responder would have to make an effort to swim against the tide of the closed question.
Remember, people are busy, so when we ask questions that can be answered in a few words — when we give them the ability to take a shortcut as opposed to a more extended response — they’ll often take it.
Here are some of the most versatile open questions:
- What do you think?
- How do you feel about this?
- What else should I know?
- What questions can I answer?
Additionally, you can readily construct open questions by using the phrases how did, how was, please describe, please explain, please discuss, and please tell me more. For example: ‘Please tell me more about your idea.’ ‘How did you feel about that?’ ‘Please discuss the Gatorville account proposal.’ ‘Please explain your conclusion in more detail.’
4. … and use closed questions prudently.
Despite my warning not to use closed questions too frequently, they can be helpful in the right circumstances. Closed questions (in other words, those that can be answered in a handful of words) are easy to spot because they often start with words like who, when, where, is, or do: “Who can help us get this done?” “When is the project due?” “Where do I get more information?” “Is this the job you want?” “Do you like your boss?”
Closed questions are useful for simple informational queries (‘When is the meeting?’ ‘Is Sally still our HR contact?’), for limiting the range of potential responses, or for expediting a conversation. But be very careful not to slip into the habit of closing off your questions when you are trying to establish dialogue and encourage conversational participation.
5. Be polite.
You’ll notice that please occurs frequently in many examples and phrases above. This is pragmatic etiquette. (Yes, your mother was on the right track when she insisted that you use “please” and “thank you.”) Remember the stranger on the bus? When you asked, “Could you move over?” you got an icy glare in response and then suffered through an uncomfortable 20-minute ride. What if instead you said, “I’m sorry, could I please trouble you to move over just a bit? Thank you so much!”
It’s very simple — so simple, in fact, that you may be tempted to overlook it — but making a point to be polite when asking questions can greatly change the outcome. Adding aplease to your questions helps to signal your positive intent, can foster trust, and can reduce reflexive resistance.
6. Let people talk.
In a world filled with constant chatter — both spoken and digital — silence is a rarity, and it often makes us uncomfortable. When there’s a pause in conversation, your first impulse may be to jump into the breach and fill it with whatever words first come to mind. But especially when you’re asking important questions, do your best to tame that impulse and hold your tongue.
People require some space to absorb information, formulate their responses, and deliver them effectively. So sit back and let your good questions work their magic. Don’t sabotage your questions by being afraid of silence. A pause following a good question usually signals contemplation, not consternation. If you jump in too quickly, you shortchange the process.
7. Use nudges liberally.
Nudges are stand-alone phrases like tell me more, I see, and go on, which are often used following an open question to maintain the smooth flow of information.
Nudges are a simple but effective way to keep a line of inquiry active. They’re also a good way to let the speaker know that you are paying attention. People will almost always be willing to share more if they believe that you are receptive and interested.
Without a doubt, learning to ask better questions will improve your relationships at work and at home. You’ll avoid some conflicts and you’ll insert less confusion and anxiety into your conversations. Better questioning skills will reduce resistance to your queries and will help you establish more productive and meaningful dialogue.
Geoffrey Tumlin is the author of ”Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life“. He is the founder and CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC, a communication consulting company; president of On-Demand Leadership, a leadership development company; and founder and board chair of Critical Skills Nonprofit, a 501(c)(3) public charity dedicated to providing communication and leadership skills training to chronically underserved populations.