The phrasing of a question depends largely on what you want the question to do. Some questions are not designed to elicit information. They are designed to establish rapport or improve morale. For example, “How are you doing, Ken” may be used to establish rapport before a meeting or conversation. To improve morale, you might say, “You’re not going to let a small thing like that get you down, are you?” or “I’m confident you can do this job, aren’t you?”
If you want a person to be more introspective, you might say, “You say you’re afraid to take on this assignment. Why?” If you want someone to think about an issue, you could say something like, “If Adria’s Fashions cuts prices, what are our options?” These are examples of some different reasons for questions and they must be phrased appropriately.
Determining how to phrase a question may be more difficult that determining the question we want to ask. Effective question phrasing requires some knowledge about the person who is expected to answer the question and some insight and background about the situation.
Improperly phrased questions may be considered as intrusive, demeaning or insulting by the other person. If so, the other person may decide to not answer or give an evasive answer to the question. The other person might consider it threatening. If so, he/she is likely to feel that if an honest answer is given, they will regret it. Others may feel that their answer will be used against them. They feel that they have to say something, so they may lie, or set up an impenetrable smoke screen.
Types of Questions
There are several ways to classify questions and our classification will be helpful to anyone who wants to communicate interactively. In this section we will discuss relevant and irrelevant questions, direct and indirect questions, open and closed questions, follow-up questions, and clarifying questions.
Testing Your Questions
Every question, before being asked, should be subjected to the following tests:
• So What-If and when I get the answer, what difference will it make?
• Clarity-Will the other person understand why I am asking this question?
• Dignity-Will the other person find this question demeaning or insulting?
• Silliness-Will these questions make me look silly or frivolous?”
• Time Value-Am I wasting time asking a question to which I know the answer?
Relevant vs. Irrelevant Questions
Managers or team leaders who don’t take the time to plan their questions or to think them through beforehand may waste time by asking irrelevant questions and listening to irrelevant answers.
Direct and Indirect Questions
A direct question is straightforward and explicit. For example, “Are you sick?” An indirect question is subtle and implicit. For example, “Why are you so quiet?” Direct questions work well when the answers don’t require self-evaluation. When the answers do require self-evaluation, indirect questions may work better. Here’s an example. Suppose you were interviewing an applicant for a warehouse job. You would probably encounter no problems if you asked the following direct questions, because none of them requires self-examination:
Have you worked in a warehouse before? Or, “How many years of warehousing experience do you have?”
Open and Closed Ended Questions
Open Ended questions are worded to encourage expansive answers. They are sometimes defined as those that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. For example, “Why did you leave your last job?”; “Why do you think selection output is down?”; “What explanation did she give you for calling-off on Saturday?” Each of these questions encourages a thorough, inclusive, comprehensive answer. Neither can be answered with a yes, no, or maybe.
Closed Ended questions can frequently be answered with a simple yes, no, or maybe. For example, “Will John attend the shift meeting?”; “What color is the trailer painted?”; “How many bundles of cardboard do you have left?”
Each of these questions encourages a short, compact, succinct answer. Both open and closed questions are indispensable, but at different times and for different purposes. If you want someone to open up, to develop a topic, to enlarge upon it, to discuss it at some length, ask an open ended question. If you want someone to close in on a detail, to focus on a single, limited aspect of a topic, to zero-in on a particular point, ask a closed ended question. Neither open ended or close ended questions are foolproof. Talkative people can give long winded answers to closed questions.
Inflection is the way you alter the tone and pitch of your voice to emphasize or de-emphasize words and phrases. Inflection can make a dramatic difference in the way your questions are interpreted. A sentence like, “Why did you quit your last job?” looks innocent enough on paper. But aloud it can take on a whole variety of overtones, depending on the way it’s inflected. It can sound like a neutral request for information or an accusation of wrongdoing, hint at stupidity, suggests bad judgment or sinister motives. The sound of your questions can be as important as the way you phrase them.
Pay attention to your tone of voice. Try not to sound judgmental or accusatory. You should pace the speed your questions. Rapid-fire questioning, in which one question follows on the heels of another with relentless intensity, makes people feel like they’re being grilled or interrogated. Even if you’re in a hurry or feel some urgency about getting the answers you need, don’t turn the session into the “third degree.”
Please “Like” and share your comments. Additional training resources are located here.