Ever ask an awkward question? We all have. Effective questioning is a skill that takes time to master. In his book Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life, communication consultant Geoffrey Tumlin explores the dangerous territory of questions.
“In general, faulty questions are those we ask to indulge our personal, ‘I-based’ cravings to get an answer, to hammer home a point, or to satisfy a narrow, personal curiosity,” Tumlin says. “Whether they’re critical, tactless, unwanted, offensive, embarrassing, intrusive, or loaded, these types of questions are likely to stifle dialogue and can cause relationships to deteriorate.”
To counter this tendency, Tumlin explains, we need to approach questioning from a “we-based” perspective and remember some basic tenets of effective communication. Here are Tumlin’s tips for improving your questions:
1. Clarify your intentions. Know what sort of answer you’re after before you speak. Think about your motive and what you’re trying to learn. What are the possible interpretations of your question? Remember to approach your question from we-based perspective. “If you believe you’re asking a good question but still sense uncertainty in your conversational partner, clear it up by saying something like, ‘I’d like to know more about the way you work so our collaboration can be more effective,’” explains Tumlin.
2. Ask for permission. No one likes to be interrogated, especially when it comes to personal issues. Before barging in on someone’s private affairs, consider saying simply “May I ask you a question?” “You can also tell the other person he doesn’t have to answer,” says Tumlin. This puts the control solidly in the hands of the person being questioned.
3. Go for the open-ender. If it’s information you’re after, the open-ended question may be the best approach. They encourage the person being questioned to talk and give longer answers. Examples include “How do you feel about it?” and “What else do you think is important?” “Remember, people are busy, so when we ask questions that can be answered in a few words—when we give them the ability to take a shortcut as opposed to a more extended response—they’ll often take it,” says Tumlin.