The Fine Art of Questioning


By Odette Pollar,

The door closes behind your staff person and you wonder if anything was accomplished in your meeting. You have attempted to keep the lines of communication open, but no matter how often or how much you talk, you do not seem to get any closer to understanding. When you are seeking suggestions to improve operations, feedback about a new project, or to discover what has been bothering a key employee, asking questions is the obvious answer. The trick is to ask the right types of questions or you may find yourself with less than you hoped for.

Broadly stated, there are two types of questions with variations within each. Open ended or closed questions. Closed questions allow only yes/no or true/false answers. "Aren’t you ready yet?" "Do you like the new artwork?" Although these can be quite useful in narrowing a conversation, or for intentionally preventing answers that are too detailed, these are not the best choice when your purpose is to hear another’s opinion. Open-ended questions allow many possible answers. They solicit more in-depth and thoughtful answers. "What do you think of the new policy?" "How would you feel about changing your shift times?" These are particularly useful with people who might be reticent to state an opinion.

It is easy to confuse an open-ended question with a directive question or even a disguised closed question. "This new promotion is really great, don't you think so?" It would take a very strong or brave person to answer in the negative. The question itself telegraphs the expected response. If you really want to know what is troubling an employee or why their performance is not up to par, consider a question that would require a more detailed answer such as: "You looked frustrated during that last phone call. Did you run into some kind of problem?"

"Don't you think you would enjoy learning some new skills?" This may sound open, yet it really is not. There is no other intelligent way to answer that except to say yes, even if this is not your feeling. If you are trying to find out why training classes have not been well attended, this does not allow the person to tell you the underlying issues. Perhaps they are overworked or three people were out sick or the classes are too advanced.

Some questions are described as loaded. They are emotional in content, accusatory or in some other way potentially damaging to the listener. "Don't you think you should be willing to travel more?" This question implies that he or she may not even be trying. A more effective inquiry is: "Help me understand what is making it difficult for you to take out of state assignments." This will open the door to a fruitful conversation rather than a confrontational one.

When your purpose is to get an idea of an employee's perception of work, their environment or any hindering factors, "Why don't you make as many sales calls as our more successful reps?" will probably open you up to an argument about whether he or she is making as many calls as other reps or a discussion about how circumstances are different for them. Once people become busy defending themselves, you lose the thoughtful answers that you were initially looking for. A better choice might be: "Is there a way that I can help you increase your call ratio and close more sales?"

Asking good questions is a skill that takes a little practice. Once mastered, it will ease your interactions and improve the quality of your communication. You might be surprised by what you hear.

Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. Email to share your comments, questions and suggestions: Visit us at: call: 1-800-599-8463.


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