Interacting with human beings sometimes requires knowing how to ask questions. But not just any questions; the right questions depending on the goal and the person being asked. This applies to interactions with friends and family and to working relationships. What is it that you want or need to know? What is the question being asked for? Different questions will yield different answers, or no answers at all. It’s fundamental to know what type of question to ask in order to get the information that is needed or sought.
If there is a situation to clarify or information to be had and your only request for information requires yes or no for an answer, you won’t get too far. Imagine a manager who needs to get to the bottom of a problem in a conflict between two employees. He sits with each person involved in turns and asks them questions that need yes/no answers. He will need hours to obtain some kind of information. It could go something like this…
– Did you have an argument with X?
– Did you start it?
– So X started it?
That could take forever.
On the other hand, more open-ended questions could also lead some people to not knowing what or how to answer. Imagine a conversation between a manager and an employee who’s often late…
– Why are you late so often?
– I don’t know. I try to be on time
– But you are often late. Why?
– I don’t know
That could also take forever.
Different styles are needed under different circumstances and depending on the goal to be reached and the characteristics of the person being asked. The most important aspect of any question is its answer: what is it that the question is trying to discover? Questions should always be posed based on the goal they need to reach. So, if confirmation or refutation are needed, a closed-ended question requiring a YES/NO answer will help most. Closed-ended questions can also prove useful when open conversation is difficult for whatever reason and as an icebreaker.
So, if dealing with a very shy or angry person, open-ended questions might prove impossible to handle the situation. If that kind of person is given the choice to answer and volunteer information, he or she might feel blocked, stressed or upset. We might need to use closed-ended questions just to get them talking and relaxing a bit; just to get the conversation flowing. Let’s imagine a scenario in which information is needed from a very angry or a very shocked client… If the questions we start posing are of the why-kind, the client might lose control over his temper and just let go of his anger or frustration. If, on the other hand, a set of yes/no questions is offered, that might give him the time and pace he needs to calm down and slowly start a conversation that might result in more open-ended questions later.
Closed-ended questions are therefore very useful when trying to confirm or refute information and when trying to guide the conversation very much.
If more information is the goal, open-ended questions (who, when, how, why, where…) can help better if properly used. If details are needed, open-ended questions offer the interviewee the possibility to give them. Let’s imagine a situation in which a conflict between two employees needs to be solved. We already saw in the example above that closed-ended questions would lead the manager nowhere. Let’s explore a different scenario:
– How did the argument with X begin?
– Well, he took one of my tools and didn’t return it, so I had to go fetch it back.
Just that first “how” question offers the manager much more information than any YES/NO question would. Open-ended questions give people the opportunity to express themselves. They help us get more details. Let’s see another example…
– Why are you feeling upset?
– I’m feeling upset because he should have returned the tool and not make me go and get it. That made me waste a lot of time.
– What else are you feeling?
– I’m really angry. I needed to finish something but couldn’t because I needed that tool and then had no time left.
– What would you like to do about this now?
– I would like to make sure that my tools remain by my post all the time.
By not “putting words in people’s mouths” and letting them express what they truly think and feel, the conversation can expand and grow. People can then explore aspects of the problem that they might have not thought about before. Open-ended questions are also very powerful when trying to unblock certain situations. Let’s see an example:
– What do you want now?
– I don’t know (blocked)
– How are you feeling now?
– Disappointed. That’s how I’m feeling. I wanted the company to organize the working stations better.
– How would you organize them?
– I would make sure that…
By changing the question and giving the person the chance to explore other aspects of the same issue, a conversation can be unblocked and more information shared. If the goal is to get more details, to understand the person being asked, to move forward, open-ended questions can help a lot.
There are many systems and sets of questions being used in companies and by professionals today to try and get information and help situations evolve faster and better. Toyota, for instance, created a 5-question system to help analyze problems by repeating “why” to all answers offered when researching a situation. Example:
– Why did you get into the argument?
– Because he took my tools
– Why did he take your tools?
– Because he didn’t have any
– Why didn’t he have any?
– Because we need to share one set with the worker next to us and that person was using theirs
– Why do you have to share the tools?
– Because the company believes that one set per two people is enough
– Why do they think so?
– Because it usually is. But they forgot to consider rush hour and individual speed.
The system applies the logic that we just explained: ask open-ended questions to get more information. Toyota decided that 5 “why” questions would offer them enough information to understand the underlying problem in order to solve it. Once again, the questions are asked to satisfy a certain goal: getting enough information to solve a problem. The “why” set of questions are ok in this case because the goal is obtaining that information.
Why questions might not be the right ones, though, under other circumstances. If the goal is to get information from a person who doesn’t understand the situation for whatever reason (lack of knowledge, fear, guilt…), “why” could block that person, in which case, other open-ended questions might help better. Let’s imagine one situation in which a person feels guilty…
– Why did you take those tools?
– I don’t know (blocked)
– Why did you act that way?
– I already said I don’t know! (maybe getting angry...)
– What did you need those tools for?
– I needed them to attach the pieces.
– Where were your own tools?
– I can’t find them. I think I lost them.
By changing the open-ended question, we unblock the conversation once more, offering the interviewee the chance to answer and explore. This example clearly shows how the goal and the person’s characteristics are what really matters. If we insisted in asking why-questions, the person would be completely blocked and no information would be obtained. The goal was getting the information.
Keeping the goal in mind and considering the person’s characteristics are the keys to asking the correct questions.
One last very important aspect to bear in mind when asking questions is pace. People need enough time to think about their answers and give them. At the same time, when too much time is given, people might feel blocked by not coming up with an answer. Closed-ended questions need less time for their answers. Open-ended ones should not be rushed. If a person doesn’t answer a question even when enough time is given, a different type of question should be asked. Observation is key in this aspect of question-asking. If the interviewee gets nervous or upset, make sure that the questions being posed are not overlapping one another and that the answers given are not interrupted. Make also sure that the person looks relaxed and comfortable. When in doubt, ask them if the pace is ok for them.
Asking questions should therefore always consider both the goal to be reached and the person being asked. Bear both in mind and your process will be much more rewarding and complete.
And remember to enjoy life… ALL of it,
Jessica J. Lockhart – humanology – www.jessicajlockhart.com
This article was first published in B LOUDER magazine
Jessica J. Lockhart is a humanologist, bestselling author and renowned international speaker. Follow her here: