The questions we ask—and the tone we use to ask them—can turn a productive conversation into a huge misunderstanding in the blink of an eye. Try asking a colleague, “Why did you format the report like this?” or ask your spouse, “Are your parents coming to dinner again?” Even asking a stranger on the bus, “Could you move over?” could lead to an unpleasant confrontation because you emphasized the wrong word or forgot to say, “please.”
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!” Communication consultants say 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 interpret 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. 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 we haven’t taken seriously for centuries. The first step is to curb our tendency to ask questions just to satisfy a personal curiosity or make a point. Instead, ask questions to learn something from or about another person. Shift your focus from “I” to “we.”
Practice seven specific skills to help you improve your questions:
Tip 1: Clarify your intent.
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.”
Tip 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.
Tip 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. 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.”