Phrasing Questions … to get the information you need!

QuestionsThere are several ways to classify questions and this classification will be helpful to anyone who wants to communicate interactively. This article will focus on three types of questions: relevant vs irrelevant questions, direct vs indirect questions and open vs closed questions.

The phrasing of a question depends largely on the information you want to elicit. 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?”

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 not to answer or give an evasive answer to the question.  Another person might consider it threatening. If so, they are likely to feel that they may regret an honest answer.

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 some examples of different reasons for questions and how they may be phrased.

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. Every question, before being asked, should be subjected to the following tests:

  • So WhatIf and when I get the answer, what difference will it make?
  • Clarity – Will the other person understand why I am asking this question?
  • DignityWill the other person find this question demeaning or insulting?
  • SillinessWill these questions make me look silly or frivolous?”
  • Time Value Am I wasting time asking a question to which I know the answer?

Direct vs 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 financial 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 Accounts Payable before? Or,How many years of accounting experience do you have?”

Open vs Closed Ended QuestionsOpen 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 payables are late?”; “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 staff meeting?”; “What color is the cabinet painted?”; “How many orders did we ship today?”

Each of these questions encourage 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.

We should be careful to note that, neither open ended or close ended questions are foolproof.

Related Articles: What’s Not in a Job Description? and   Interviewing Skills … your secret weapon!

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James E. McClain is the author of Successful Career Development: A Game Plan, the book upon which some of our training programs are based. He has over 30 years' experience as a corporate HR executive, small business owner with ongoing experience in career development and as a college instructor. His educational background includes a B.S. and Masters degrees Education and Certification in Financial Planning. Our promise is that "you can pay more for training but you can not buy better training." The mission is to deliver the most effective and cost effective training and development programs.

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