Questioning Skills and Techniques

See also: Types of Question

Gathering information is a basic human activity – we use information to learn, to help us solve problems, to aid our decision making processes and to understand each other more clearly.

Questioning is the key to gaining more information and without it interpersonal communications can fail.  Questioning is fundamental to successful communication - we all ask and are asked questions when engaged in conversation. 

We find questions and answers fascinating and entertaining – politicians, reporters, celebrities and entrepreneurs are often successful based on their questioning skills – asking the right questions at the right time and also answering (or not) appropriately.

Although questions are usually verbal in nature, they can also be non-verbal.  Raising of the eyebrows could, for example, be asking, “Are you sure?” facial expressions can ask all sorts of subtle questions at different times and in different contexts. 

See our pages: Verbal Communication and Non-Verbal Communication for more.

This page covers verbal questioning.

Why Ask Questions?

Although the following list is not exhaustive it outlines the main reasons questions are asked in common situations.

  • To Obtain Information:

    The primary function of a question is to gain information – ‘What time is it?

  • To help maintain control of a conversation

    While you are asking questions you are in control of the conversation, assertive people are more likely to take control of conversations attempting to gain the information they need through questioning. (Also see our pages on Assertiveness)

  • Express an interest in the other person

    Questioning allows us to find out more about the respondent, this can be useful when attempting to build rapport and show empathy or to simply get to know the other person better. (Also see Building Rapport and Empathy)

  • To clarify a point

    Questions are commonly used in communication to clarify something that the speaker has said.  Questions used as clarification are essential in reducing misunderstanding and therefore more effective communication. (Also see Clarification)

  • To explore the personality and or difficulties the other person may have

    Questions are used to explore the feelings, beliefs, opinions, ideas and attitudes of the person being questioned. They can also be used to better understand problems that another person maybe experiencing – like in the example of a doctor trying to diagnose a patient. (See our page What is Counselling?)

  • To test knowledge

    Questions are used in all sorts of quiz, test and exam situations to ascertain the knowledge of the respondent.  ‘What is the capital of France?’ for example.

  • To encourage further thought

    Questions may be used to encourage people think about something more deeply.  Questions can be worded in such a way as to get the person to think about a topic in a new way.  ‘Why do you think Paris is the capital of France?

  • In group situations

    Questioning in group situations can be very useful for a number of reasons, to include all members of the group, to encourage more discussion of a point, to keep attention by asking questions without advance warning.  These examples can be easily related to a classroom of school children.

How to Ask Questions

Being an effective communicator has a lot to do with how questions are asked.  Once the purpose of the question has been established you should ask yourself a number of questions:

  • What type of question should be asked – See our page: Question Types.
  • Is the question appropriate to the person/group?
  • Is this the right time to ask the question?
  • How do I expect the respondent will reply?

When actually asking questions – especially in more formal settings some of the mechanics to take into account include:

Being Structured

In certain situations, for example if you are conducting a research project or you work in a profession that requires the recording of information, it may be necessary to ask large numbers of questions.

In such cases it is usually a good idea to inform the respondent of this before you start, by giving some background information and reasoning behind your motive of asking questions. By doing this the respondent becomes more open to questions and why it is acceptable for you to be asking them.

They also know and can accept the type of questions that are likely to come up, for example, “In order to help you with your insurance claim it will be necessary for me to ask you about your car, your health and the circumstances that led up to the accident”.

In most cases the interaction between questioner and respondent will run more smoothly if there is some structure to the exchange.

Use Silence

Using silence is a powerful way of delivering questions.

As with other interpersonal interactions pauses in speech can help to emphasise points and give all parties a few moments to gather their thoughts before continuing.

A pause of at least three seconds before a question can help to emphasise the importance of what is being asked.  A three second pause directly after a question can also be advantageous; it can prevent the questioner from immediately asking another question and indicates to the respondent that a response is required.

Pausing again after an initial response can encourage the respondent to continue with their answer in more detail. Pauses of less than three seconds have been proven to be less effective.

Encouraging Participation

In group situations leaders often want to involve as many people as possible in the discussion or debate.

This can be at least partially achieved by asking questions of individual members of the group.

One way that the benefits of this technique can be maximised is to redirect a question from an active member of the group to one who is less active or less inclined to answer without a direct opportunity. Care should be taken in such situations as some people find speaking in group situations very stressful and can easily be made to feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or awkward.

Encourage but do not force quieter members of the group to participate.

Advanced Communication Skills - The Skills You Need Guide to Interpersonal Skills

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