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.
4. Mind your manners. A great way to begin an open-ended question is “Please explain…” or “Please describe…” Being polite when asking questions is so basic as to be sometimes overlooked. “Adding a please to your questions helps to signal your positive intent, can foster trust, and can reduce reflexive resistance,” explains Tumlin.
5. Let people talk. To be a great questioner, you’ve got to get over your fear of silence. Thanks to digital technology, we are surrounded by constant chatter and may squirm when we hit a lull in a conversation. Resist the urge to fill it yourself. “Don’t sabotage your questions by being afraid of silence,” Tumlin advises. “A pause following a good question usually signals contemplation, not consternation. If you jump in too quickly, you shortchange the process.”
6. Use “nudges.” A nudge, such as “please go on” or “please elaborate,” can help keep the conversation going and encourage the person being questioned to divulge more information. According to Tumlin, nudges are a “good way to let the speaker know that you are paying attention. People will almost always be willing to share more if they believe that you are receptive and interested.”
A good question can open up new territory in a relationship and alert you to helpful information. Remember these tips and become an expert at the art of asking questions.
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