In our previous post, we looked at why “Active Listening” is a key tool for courageous conversations, so it's perhaps no surprise that our third and final key tool is “Questioning”. Skilled communicators use questions in a variety of ways: to gather better information and learn more; to build stronger relationships; to manage people more effectively; or to help others to learn. The questions they use generally fall into 5 ‘types’ – open/closed, funnel, probing, leading and rhetorical.
Type 1: Open and Closed – closed questions get a ‘yes/no’ response; open questions invite longer responses and start with ‘what, where, when, how, why’. Open questions are good for:
- Developing an open, collaborative conversation about the issue
- Finding out more detail about a situation or person’s views
- Examples of open questions: "How did you arrive at that conclusion?"; "What could we do to make this project a success?"
Closed questions are good for:
- Testing your understanding, or the other person's
- Concluding a discussion or making a decision
- Setting a frame for the conversation
- Examples of closed questions: “Do we have a customer service problem?”; “Am I right in thinking that..?”; “Are we all agreed?”
Type 2: Funnel – you start with general closed, questions, and then home in on a point in each answer, and asking more and more detail at each level (like a lawyer). Funnel questions are good for:
- Finding out more detail about a specific point
- Gaining the interest or increasing the confidence of the person you're speaking with
- De-fusing emotive conversations
- Examples of funnel questions: How many complaints did we receive in June?"- "Were they from the same customer?" - "What were they complaining about?” - “Can you identify any trends?” – “What frustrates you about the situation?”
Type 3: Probing – Another method of obtaining more information using open questions who, what, why, when, where - that often include the word "exactly" to probe further.
Probing questions are good for:
- Gaining clarification to ensure you have the whole story and that you understand it thoroughly
- Drawing information out of people who are trying to avoid telling you something.
- Examples: "What exactly do you mean by fast-track?"; "Who, exactly, wanted this report?"
Type 4: Leading - Leading questions try, as the name suggests, to lead the other person to your way of thinking, so they tend to be closed rather than open. A word of warning: use leading questions with care. If you use them with bad intentions, which may cause the other person harm, you run the risk of being seen as manipulative and dishonest (killing trust and rapport – and your relationship). Leading questions are good for:
- Getting the answer you want but leaving the other person feeling that they have had a choice.
- Closing a sale or negotiation.
- Examples: “How much do you think the over-spend will be on this project?”; “Option 1 is better don’t you think?”; “Would you agree that Option 2 is preferable?”
Type 5: Rhetorical – these questions don’t invite any answer other than ‘yes’. They’re really just statements in question form. Rhetorical questions are good for:
- Building rapport and getting the listener ‘on side’
- Closing the conversation
- Examples: “Don’t you love that new product?”; “The new branding is really cool isn’t it?”; “Sales have gone well, haven’t they?”; “Looks like we’re in agreement, doesn’t it?”
In conclusion, questions are hugely important in handling difficult conversations. They can help you learn about the other person’s viewpoint, develop a better relationship by showing a positive concern for their views or situation, get others with conflicting views on your side or calm a heated situation by enabling them to open up. They’re also a powerful way of persuading people of your point of view, without overtly “telling” them what to do - a key trigger for conflict in workplace conversations.