Although there are numerous reasons for asking questions the information we receive back (the answer) will depend very much on the type of question we ask. In the simplest form there are two types of question, closed questions and open questions.
Closed questions invite a short focused answer- answers to closed questions can often (but not always) be either right or wrong. Closed questions are usually easy to answer - as the choice of answer is limited - they can be effectively used early in conversations to encourage participation and can be very useful in fact-finding scenarios such as research. The questioner using closed questions has a lot of control over the conversation, forcing brief - often one-word answers.
Closed questions can simply require a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer, for example: ‘Do you smoke?’, ‘Did you feed the cat?’, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
Closed questions can require that a choice is made from a list of possible options, for example: ‘Would you like beef, chicken or the vegetarian option?’, ‘Did you travel by train or car today?’
Closed questions can also be asked to identify a certain piece of information, again with a limited set of answers, for example: ‘What is your name?’, ‘What time does the supermarket open?’, ‘Where did you go to University?’
By contrast to closed questions, open questions allow for much longer responses and therefore potentially more creativity and information. There are lots of different types of open question; some are more closed than others.
Leading or ‘loaded’ questions
A leading question, usually subtly, points the respondent’s answer in a certain direction. Asking an employee, ‘How are you getting on with the new finance system?’ This question prompts the person to question how they are managing with a new system at work. In a very subtle way it raises the prospect that maybe they are not finding the new system so good. ‘Tell me how you’re getting on with the new finance system’ is a less leading question – the question does not require any judgement to be made and therefore does not imply that there may be something wrong with the new system.
Children are particularly susceptible to leading questions and are more likely to take the lead for an answer from an adult. Something simple like, ‘Did you have a good day at school?’ points the child towards thinking about good things that happened at school. By asking, ‘How was school today?’ you are not asking for any judgement about how good or bad the day has been and you are more likely to get a more balanced, accurate answer. This can shape the rest of the conversation, the next question may be, ‘What did you do at school?’ - the answer to this may vary based on the first question you asked – good things or just things.
Recall and process questions
Questions can also be categorised by whether they are ‘recall’ – requiring something to be remembered or recalled, or ‘process’ – requiring some deeper thought and/or analysis.
A simple recall question could be, ‘What is your mother’s maiden name?’. This requires the respondent to recall some information from memory, a fact. A school teacher may ask recall questions of their pupils, ‘What is the highest mountain?’ Process questions require more thought and analysis and/or a sharing of opinion. Examples include, ‘What skills can you bring to this organisation that the other applicants cannot?’ or ‘What are the advantages and disadvantages of asking leading questions to children?’
Rhetorical questions are often humorous and don’t require an answer. ‘If you set out to fail and then succeed have you failed or succeeded?’ Rhetorical questions are often used by speakers in presentations to get the audience to think – questions promote thought. Politicians, lecturers, priests and others may use rhetorical questions when addressing large audiences to help keep attention. ‘Who would not hope to stay healthy into old age?’ is not a question that requires an answer, but our brains are programmed to think about it thus keeping us more engaged with the speaker.