How to Use Questions to Guide Conversations

When communicating nothing is more important or more misunderstood than the skill of asking questions. Most people don’t realize how important the ability to communicate effectively is in a practical sense. When it comes to succeeding in love and life, we think about things such as skills, grades, and accomplishments, but the ability to communicate trumps all of that. Ask anyone who hires and fires at a Fortune 500 company, and they will stress to you how important it is to be able to communicate effectively.

The Importance of the Question

We think of asking questions as merely a tool to gain information. Yes, this indeed is one of the main ways we learn. However, questioning can do so much more than that. For many professions, questions are a vital component of the job. For example, a skilled lawyer knows that asking the right question in court can make or break a case. A police officer’s life sometimes depends on asking questions. Human Resource experts use questions to mediate employee relations issues, complete investigations, and to work with executives on projects. These may be obvious examples but examine the tech sector, and you will discover that excellence in communication is necessary for everyone at all levels of seniority throughout an organization. Thus, every job description now includes a requirement for communication and presentation skills.

Questions are more than just ways to gain information; they should be used as main facets of a conversation, guiding the topics to where the discussion needs to go. Along the way, questions help us build connections and relationships with those we’ve been conversing with, which leads to a more productive and active environment.

Types of Questions

Start by understanding what kinds of questions to ask, and when. Not all questions are useful in all situations, so it’s essential to know when to use different approaches.

Direct Versus Open-Ended Questions

We often think of questions as being asked to achieve a specific purpose. Direct questions accomplish this goal. Ask, answer. These are especially useful in email communication and via text. However, in a live conversation, direct questioning (especially those that force someone into giving yes and no responses) can limit responses and be interpreted as hostile; the person we are questioning feels interrogated. No one likes to be in this situation, and can often make someone shut down.

Instead, in live conversation ask a majority of open-ended questions. Open-ended questions foster a sense of trust and open communication because the respondent has the freedom to answer how he or she feels most comfortable. So if you don't feel like you’re getting the answer you’re looking for, then it becomes important to ask follow-ups.

Follow-up Questions

Just like how it sounds, a follow-up is simply a question you ask in response to an answer from a previous inquiry. More than just a way to ask more questions, crafting appropriate follow-up can be the most valuable part of a line of questioning. Once you’ve given the respondent a chance to answer, your follow-up then allows them to know that you are listening and thinking about what you’ve told them, while also being curious about their thoughts. This engagement makes them more inclined to share information that they would have kept initially to themselves.

Sensitive Questions

Many people shy away from asking questions they feel are too sensitive. However,  research has shown that asking sensitive questions can be very useful, especially if you ask them early in the conversation. Even if you don’t get an answer right away, backing off and asking less sensitive questions afterward actually puts the respondent at ease, feeling like you’ve already “done your worst” and they can relax around you and open up more.

Choosing the Right Tone of Your Questions

Consider the situation and desired outcome when choosing your tone. Asking questions that come off as official, formal, or too practiced can be off-putting to someone. To put someone at ease, work on sounding casual, and relaxed. Even in a situation like an interview, where questions are thought out in advance, taking the time to make them seem less rehearsed can help create an atmosphere of trust and cooperation rather than a competitive mood.

Choosing Questions Based on Conversational Goals

When speaking of competition and cooperation, it’s important to remember the goals of any conversation. Many discussions are cooperative; you are working with someone else to share information for learning or succeeding at a task. These sorts of conversations require open-ended questions that can foster discussion and mutual questions and answers.

A competitive conversation, however, consists of many rhetorical questions or yes-no responses, giving the respondent very few chances to talk or explain his or her side of a situation. These conversations give up less information and leave both parties feeling frustrated.

However, you approach the subject, asking the right question is a much more important skill than you’ve probably realized before and requires advance thought. If you work in Recruiting, Human Resources or Finance and use questions masterfully, I would love to hear your tips to implement in everyday work life.


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