The Value of Effective Questions

Blog by Tracy Stock, CSP

Asking effective questions is not only helpful, but a productive way of obtaining a clearer understanding and potentially getting us closer to obtaining what we want. Most people agree, yet their actions don’t follow.

Effective questions are open-ended, non-leading, and ask “what” or “how” versus “why.” “Why” questions are great for soliciting information, but can lead to feelings of defensiveness. For example: “What do you think the problem is?” versus “Why do you think there is a problem?”

And when asking effective questions, it is important to wait for the answer and resist providing it, especially in the presence of an awkward silence. It is also about listening to the answer and suspending judgment. Let go of your opinions and listen intently to what the person is saying, as well as what is behind the words. Examples of effective questions include:

  • What seems to be the issue from your perspective?
  • How do you feel about _____________?
  • What concerns you the most about _____________?
  • What is your desired outcome?
  • What do you foresee as obstacles with this plan?
  • Tell me more about _______________.

Listening can be difficult, though, when posing a question to someone. There are various factors that impact the art of listening. Perhaps it is because there is a desire to maintain control of the conversation. Or maybe, rather than answering the question directly, the person who was asked the question wants to share more information for deeper understanding and it is viewed by the questioner as a tactic to side-step it. Whatever the reason, sharpening our listening skills can only help reach greater understanding.

To enhance listening skills when asking effective questions, here are a three helpful strategies:

Focus Outward. Rather than focusing your attention on how the words you hear affect you—like considering your thoughts, issues, feelings, etc.—focus your attention outwardly on the person saying them. Listen not only for the words that are said, but listen for what they value and what is important to him/her. Instead of planning on what you will say next, listen carefully and completely. 

Clarify. Clarifying is a combination of asking and clearly articulating what you’ve heard. If someone is being vague, politely help them by restating what you heard s/he say. For example: “If I understand you correctly, you are concerned about X and want to better understand how Y works. Is that right?”

Pause. The power of the pause helps the other person to complete his/her thought and doesn’t invoke your opinion or idea. If you feel the person is stuck and wants your assistance with finding the right words, perhaps reassuring him/her that you care and want to better understand. For example, “It may be difficult to find the right words. I care, though, and want to hear your perspective.”

Given the high stakes of the upcoming Presidential election, enrich your understanding by asking at least one effective question today.  

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