Types of Question
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.
Questions, in their simplest form, can either be open or closed - this page covers both types but also details many other question types and when it may be appropriate to use them, in order to improve understanding.
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.
Closed questions are used to force a brief, often one-word answer.
- 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 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 – rhetorical questions are, by design, used to 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.
We can use clever questioning to essentially funnel the respondent’s answers – that is ask a series of questions that become more (or less) restrictive at each step, starting with open questions and ending with closed questions or vice-versa.
"Tell me about your most recent holiday."
"What did you see while you were there?"
"Were there any good restaurants?"
"Did you try some local delicacies?"
"Did you try the Clam Chowder?"
The questions in this example become more restrictive, starting with open questions which allow for very broad answers, at each step the questions become more focused and the answers become more restrictive.
Funnelling can work the other way around, starting with closed questions and working up to more open questions. For a counsellor or interrogator these funnelling techniques can be a very useful tactic to find out the maximum amount of information, by beginning with open questions and then working towards more closed questions. In contrast, when meeting somebody new it is common to start by asking more closed questions and progressing to open questions as both parties relax. (See our page: What is Counselling? for more on the role of the counsellor.)
As there are a myriad of questions and question types so there must also be a myriad of possible responses. Theorists have tried to define the types of responses that people may have to questions, the main and most important ones are:
- A direct and honest response – this is what the questioner would usually want to achieve from asking their question.
- A lie – the respondent may lie in response to a question. The questioner may be able to pick up on a lie based on plausibility of the answer but also on the non-verbal communication that was used immediately before, during and after the answer is given.
- Out of context – The respondent may say something that is totally unconnected or irrelevant to the question or attempt to change the topic. It may be appropriate to reword a question in these cases.
- Partially Answering – People can often be selective about which questions or parts of questions they wish to answer.
- Avoiding the answer – Politicians are especially well known for this trait. When asked a ‘difficult question’ which probably has an answer that would be negative to the politician or their political party, avoidance can be a useful tact. Answering a question with a question or trying to draw attention to some positive aspect of the topic are methods of avoidance.
- Stalling – Although similar to avoiding answering a question, stalling can be used when more time is needed to formulate an acceptable answer. One way to do this is to answer the question with another question.
- Distortion – People can give distorted answers to questions based on their perceptions of social norms, stereotypes and other forms of bias. Different from lying, respondents may not realise their answers are influenced by bias or they exaggerate in some way to come across as more ‘normal’ or successful. People often exaggerate about their salaries.
- Refusal – The respondent may simply refuse to answer, either by remaining silent or by saying, ‘I am not answering’.