Communication Skills

Question Skills: How We Can Be Great At Asking Questions

Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.

- Voltaire


The Kipling questions:

I keep six honest serving men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.

- Rudyard Kipling


How effective and empowering questions create value:


- They create clarity: 'Can you explain more about this situation?'

- They construct better working relations: Instead of 'Did you make your sales goal?' ask, 'How have sales been going?'

- They help people think analytically and critically: 'What are the consequences of going this route?'

- They inspire people to reflect and see things in fresh, unpredictable ways: 'Why did this work?'

- They encourage breakthrough thinking: 'Can that be done in any other way?'

- They challenge assumptions: 'What do you think you will lose if you start sharing responsibility for the implementation process?'

- They create ownership of solutions: 'Based on your experience, what do you suggest we do here?'


(Source: 'How to Ask Better Questions';, Judith Ross, HBR)


Nine main types of questions to know more and to persuade people


- Open questions: To grab them from the beginning. Good for developing an open conversation, finding out more detail, finding out other person's POV on issues.

- Closed questions: Good for testing your/other persons' understanding, concluding a discussion or making a decision - e.g. Are you happy with your job?

- Loaded questions: That lead people to think in a certain way. E.g. 'Where did you hide the gun?' (assumes that you hid the gun)

- Funnel questions: Starting with a general question and then focusing on one point in each answer, and asking more detail at each level - e.g. what police detectives do.

- Probing questions (probing for purpose, relevance, completeness and accuracy etc): Extreme form of closed questions. E.g. 'What exactly did you mean by 'X'?' - 'How do you know that is true?' - 'Could you tell me more about that, please?' - Or, just asking a question repeatedly until you get an answer.

- Leading questions: Trying to lead the person to your views - by - using an assumption ('how stupid do you think he is?') - by adding a personal appeal to agree at the end ('...don't you think?') - phrasing a question so that the easiest answer is yes 'if you have seen all, shall we go ahead?'

- Rhetorical questions: That do not need an answer. E.g. 'Is the sky blue?' - Sometimes, we want to say something that other may not necessarily agree but we want them to agree anyway - E.g. 'Isn't that wonderful?'

- Socratic questioning: That makes people think - probing our assumptions, our grasp of the concept, our viewpoint/perspective, our rationale/reasons/evidence implications and consequences, questions about questions

- Tag questions: Small questions added to the end of statement - E.g. '...don't you?')


Eight kinds of opener questions


- Memory questions: Can you remember the names of all 50 U.S. states?

- Knowledge questions: How do you perfectly boil an egg?

- Identity questions: Would you say you are mostly honest?

- Opinion questions: Do you think the government is doing a good job?

- Action question: Can you all please close your eyes, just for a moment?

- Cascaded questions: Do you give to charity? Would anyone give the contents of their wallet or purse now to Oxfam? What if it would save the life of the child in this picture?

7. Fear questions: Are your children totally safe right now?

8. Greed questions: Who wants this sack of cash I have right here? Hands up!


Using questions to solve problems


1. What is the problem?

2. Why is it happening?

3. How can you fix it?

4. Fix it!

5. Why did it work or not work?

6. What next?


Using questions to find yourself


1. What’s Your Why?


What moves you?

What makes you get out of bed in the morning?

What is your passion?

What is your reason for being?


(Source: Simon Sinek)


2. Method 2


When am I most naturally myself? What people, places and activities make me feel most fully like myself?

What one thing could I stop doing, start doing or do differently today that would most improve my quality of life?

What is my greatest talent?

How can I get paid for doing what I love?

Who are my most inspiring role models?

How can I best be of service to others?

What is my heart’s deepest desire?

How am I perceived by my closest friend, my worst enemy, my boss, my children, my coworkers, etc.?

What are the blessings in my life?

What legacy would I like to leave?


(Source: Carl Ally)


3. Method 3


What do I want?

What are my choices?

What assumptions am I making?

What am I responsible for?

How else can I think about this?

What is the other person thinking, feeling, and wanting?

What am I missing or avoiding?


What can I learn?

- ... from this person or situation?

- ... from this mistake or failure?

- ... from this success?

- What action steps make the most sense?

- What questions should I ask (myself or others)?

- How can I turn this into a win-win?

- What's possible?


(Source: 'Change your questions, Change your life', by Adams Marilee)


Using questions to get at root cause: The Toyota way of asking why five times

Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Industries formulated the '5 Whys' technique to get to root (cause) and effects by repeating the question 'Why?' five times, where the response to each question forms the basis of the next one, we are able to get to the root cause.


13 Questions Start-up founders and business leaders should ask themselves

- Why do we exist? (purpose)

- What is our aspiration? (vision)

- Exactly what problem will this solve? (value proposition)

- For whom do we solve that problem? (target segment)

- Do we have the capabilities for this? (complementary team)

- How big is the opportunity? (market size)

- What alternatives are out there? (competitive landscape)

- Why are we best suited to pursue this? (our differentiator)

- Why now? (market window)

- How will we get this solution to market? (go-to-market strategy)

- How will we measure success? (metrics/revenue strategy)

- What factors are critical to success? (solution requirements)

- Can we succeed—is this viable and sustainable? (go or no-go)


(Source: Ram Sriram, Mint)



Kinds of questions you should avoid asking


1. Closed Questions

Demanding simple yes or no answers with no chance to elaborate.


This limits the gathering of information, fail to explore possibilities and get overly simple answers.


Closed questions typically start with: Could ..? Couldn't ...? Should ...? Would ...? Have ...? Are ..? Is ...? Will ...?

They can sometimes be useful for quick checking of facts or to show that you have been listening carefully to the other person: 'Now if I understood you correctly you meant that....'


2. Leading questions

These are similar to closed questions.

They predict a particular answer and should be avoided


'You're bad at maths aren't you?'


3. Negative questions

These can sometimes be good for analysis but may demotivate the interviewee from talking.


'What went wrong?'

'Whose fault was it?'



Good Question Types You Should Ask


1. Open ended questions

These are prompts to get the other person to talk about a topic

They require longer, more detailed answers, produce more, better quality information and open up possibilities.


They help the person crystallize their thoughts and help you to understand their views, feelings and attitudes.


They may start with: How ... ? When ....? Where ....? What ....? Which ....? Why ....? Who ..? What ...? If ....?


'Tell me what you think about this?'


2. Probing questions

These delve more deeply into the other person's answers, and allow you to dig down to reach the important information.


'Tell me exactly what your duties were at Google.'


3. What if questions

These are hypothetical questions These questions are used precisely because it's impossible to work out your answer beforehand, thus it tests your ability to think quickly, and reason logically.


'How would you deal with a staff member caught stealing a packet of biscuits from the shop?'

'How would you deal with an irate customer?'


4. Clarifying questions

These reflect back what the speaker is saying in other words to clarify understanding: you paraphrase and repeat back key points.


They may summarize and bring new interpretations to the speakers words.


They show you're listening carefully and checks you are understanding correctly what they are saying allowing the speaker to confirm or correct your feedback.


They encourage the speaker to elaborate and to define their problems.


If I heard you correctly, you felt very angry about the way you had been treated?


5. The 'Devil's Advocate' questions

These questions are provocative. Often, they reflect the opposite view to the real view of the questioner and can lure out any hidden prejudices you may have.


'I think that the Government has made some really stupid decisions recently: don't you agree?'


If you have a difficult or complex question, introduce it first with 'I know this will be tough to answer so please take your time'. This is more likely to elicit a considered response and doesn't put the other person on the defensive.


Ask your question and try to stay silent until you get an answer: the longer it takes to get answer, the more powerful the answer is likely to be.


6. Confirm and clarify

Ask yourself exactly what you want to gain from the conversation: a lack of clarity can lead to confusion and poor decisions.


Asking clarifying questions: 'How?', 'Why?', 'When?', 'Who?', 'What?', 'Where?', will help the other person crystallize their thoughts.


Summarize the main points in simple language.


Get the other person's agreement that your summary is accurate.


Define the problem and then move the focus to the solution: separate the points that relate to the problem and those that relate to the solution.


Agree on the action you will both take: even if this is that there will be no action.


How to answer questions

- Ignore the question and carry on regardless.

- Ask a question in return.

- Tell them that you will answer the question soon, but need to explain something first.

- Answer the question that you wanted to answer.

- Ask them why they are asking you the question.

- Ask them to clarify what they mean.


(Source: Changing Minds)


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