11 Tips for Effective Questions

What is an effective question: Where the other person feels safe to truly answer what they really mean. It is where you get beyond a façade, or the answer that they expect from you, and overcome miscommunication – to really know the other person.

Tips for Effective questioning

(Mahan Khasla, Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play) (Miller, 2004)

Questions help understanding and demonstrate listening

1. Use Open questions – not closed ones

An open question cannot be answered by ‘Yes’ or ‘No’

This helps give a wider answer. “How was your day?” vs “Did you go to school today?”

Open questions are good for:

  • Developing an open conversation: “What did you get up to on vacation?”
  • Finding out more detail: “What else do we need to do to make this a success?”
  • Finding out the other person’s opinion or issues: “What do you think about those changes?”

Closed questions are good for:

  • Testing your understanding, or the other person’s: “So, if I get this qualification, I will get a raise?”
  • Concluding a discussion or making a decision: “Now we know the facts, are we all agreed this is the right course of action?”
  • Frame setting: “Are you happy with the service from your bank?”

A misplaced closed question, on the other hand, can kill the conversation and lead to awkward silences, so are best avoided when a conversation is in full flow.

2. Funnel Questions

This technique involves starting with general questions, and then homing in on a point in each answer, and asking more and more detail at each level. It’s often used by detectives taking a statement from a witness:

Funnel questions are good for:

  • Finding out more detail about a specific point: “Tell me more about Option 2.”
  • Gaining the interest or increasing the confidence of the person you’re speaking with: “Have you used the IT Helpdesk?”, “Did they solve your problem?”, “What was the attitude of the person who took your call?”

3.The Hanging Question

“Then What Happened”, “Tell me About it”

This technique puts a very open question after framing a situation

“You had a relapse …. Tell me about it”

It sets no agenda or judgement on the situation, and allows the other person to talk without judgement

5. Ask How and What Rather Than Why

It’s better to ask “how” and “what” questions, rather than “why” questions. “Why” questions tend to point the finger and elicit defensive answers. With “how” and “what” you’re likely to generate better understanding and explanation of the nature of the opportunity.

6. Ensure You Answer the Real Question

People usually ask a question for a reason. It is often helpful to understand the reason before answering the question.  The skill of redirection helps get to the question behind the question, before we place ourselves into a corner:

  • Client: “Are you working on any other projects at this time?”
  • Consultant redirects: “I’d certainly be happy to share relevant information with you. And before I go too far, I’m sensing you’re asking the question for a particular reason. Can you help me understand what that reason is?”

Always ask yourself, before responding to the direct question. “What’s the question behind the question” – and then test that out.

7. Ask Hard Questions in a Soft Way

(High EQ Softening Statement)

An effective relationship is really achieved by combining the skills based on IQ (intelligence quotient), EQ (emotional quotient), and XQ (execution quotient). IQ is the capability to bring intellect to the table, asking the hard questions. EQ is the capability to quickly create a “container of safety” for others, so you can ask “hard” questions in a “soft” or acceptable way. XQ is the capability to execute with discipline. It’s the fusion of IQ/EQ/XQ that really achieves trust, effective dialogue, and delivery of effective results.  Here are some examples of softening statements that help establish the EQ before the IQ:

  • Would it be okay if I asked you a few questions relating to…?
  • It sounds like this issue has a particularly high profile right now and if I were in your shoes I’m sure I’d be sharing much the same perspective as you (EQ). What’s going on in your life that specifically leads you to believe that this issue really is a problem (IQ)?

8. Structure Your Questions (and Hence the Conversation)

If you are trying to find out issues with a person, organisation or situation, then structuring the conversation can get the list of key issues. Normally people will not have thought them through and you can end up in a rat hole of irrelevant details. Here’s how to Structure a Conversation:

  1. Get a list of the issues the person has top of mind.
  2. Make sure that list is complete. (“is there anything else”)
  3. Of the entire list, identify the #1 priority.
  4. On that priority develop evidence and impact.
  5. Summarize along the way.
  6. Take each issue in order of priority (if necessary).

9. No Guessing!

Even if it seems too obvious to ask the question, even if it seems like you should really know the answer already, test out how mutual everybody’s understanding is of a term or concept before embarking on a conversation. A couple of good No Guessing questions might be:

  • Just before we go any further, could you help me understand how you’re defining…?
  • You know we’ve come across lots of ways to define ‐‐‐‐‐. We’ve seen it defined as ‐‐‐‐‐‐ in this type of industry, as ‐‐‐‐‐‐ in this other situation, and as ‐‐‐‐‐‐ in this particular case.
  • What does ‘late’ mean for you?
  • You said he wasn’t a ‘good husband’. What makes a good husband, for you?

10. “For you”

This helps make a question personal, and drives against a general, intellectual answer. “What does being on time mean, for you?

11. Ask for Evidence

Just like lawyers who need evidence in order to prove a case, you need evidence to build a compelling business case. You have to prove together with the client that there really is a problem or opportunity, and clearly establish the criteria for success.

Use “how,” “what,” and “where” questions to gather evidence.

  • HOW specifically does this show up as a problem?
  • WHERE does this show up as a problem?
  • WHAT is going on in your company/relationship that proves this really is a problem?
  • HOW would you know that you were being successful?
  • WHAT (measurements) would prove success?
  • WHERE would indicators of success actually show up?

You might ask:

  1. How do you measure …?
  2. What is it now?
  3. What would you like it to be?
  4. What’s the value of the difference?
  5. Over time? (or When by?)