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One of the key elements of business success is great communication at all levels of your business. There are many aspects to communication including clarity of communication, active listening, empathy, building rapport, encouraging feedback and asking questions. Questions have many uses such as enabling you to find information, to gain clarification, to focus attention, to foster commitment, to encourage thought and ideas, to make decisions, to solve problems, to understand others, to build rapport and relationships and to encourage participation. However, do you ever consider and think about the questions you ask?
To help you to improve your questioning skills here are some of the different types of questions that you can ask. We start with open and closed questions and then move onto specific types of these questions that it is important to be aware of.
Closed. A closed question invites a short answer, whether this be 'yes' or 'no' (e.g. Would you like to take responsibility for this project?), a choice from specific options (e.g. Would like you like to take responsibility for project a or project b?) or identifying a specific piece of information (e.g. What is the key code to get into the office?). Closed questions often start with such words as Would, Should, Did, Will, Could, Shall and Can. Closed questions are useful when you want to gain agreement, check understanding or want a quick answer. Closed questions can however be a conversation stopper, as asking a closed question can bring an end to a conversation, they can also make a conversation feel one sided and the person being asked closed questions can feel like they are being put on the spot.
Open. An open question invites longer, more elaborate and explanatory answers. (e.g. How do you feel about taking responsibility for another member of staff? What happened in the team meeting today? How do you think we should deal with this customer complaint?). Open questions often start with such words as What, Where, Who, How, Why, When, Describe and Explain. Open questions are useful to encourage conversation, thought and creativity, to understand the detail of what happened, events and circumstances, to understand thoughts and feelings, to encourage decision making, to empower others and to gain feedback. However, for open questions to be the most effective you need to ensure you allow sufficient time for the conversation, as asking someone an open question and then cutting them off will be counterproductive. Also, be very careful using Why? questions as they can make the other person feel very defensive and needing to justify themselves.
Reflective & clarifying. A reflective or clarifying question is used to check and clarify understanding and to verify information (e.g. Are you saying that you will complete the report by Wednesday? You said you were feeling annoyed with your boss, what is your boss doing to make you feel annoyed? It sounds like you are overwhelmed with your workload, perhaps you can explain more about this?). Reflective and clarifying questions are useful to enable someone to give voice to their feelings and for you to fully understand what the other person is saying to you. However, be careful not to be very direct with your questions if someone is emotional (e.g. It is better to start a question with 'It sounds like you are frustrated about this situation' rather than 'You are obviously frustrated about this situation').
Hypothetical. A hypothetical question is used to try and understand what others may think or feel about something (e.g. What do you think would happen if we merged team a and team b together? How will you feel if we offered you a secondment to the London office?). Hypothetical questions enable exploration and ideas, encourage participation, help to gauge opinions and to consider possible scenarios in advance. However, be careful to fully explain the background to your questions so as not to alarm people or create uncertainty.
Leading. A leading question subtly points the answer in a specific direction and can be used to lead a person to your way of thinking (e.g. So, don't you think we should look for a new marketing manager? Well I think this product is the right one for you, don't you?). Leading questions can be useful for closing a sale or where you want to get others to agree with you. However leading questions can leave others feeling they have no choice or that they are being manipulated or dictated to.
Probing. A probing question is used to find out more details and information (e.g. When exactly is the report needed for? What information do you want in the report?). Probing questions are good for understanding something in detail, for gaining clarification and for eliciting information where someone is reluctant to provide it. However, probing questions can come across as very to the point and direct, so be careful how you ask these questions, so the person does not feel interrogated.
Funnelling. A series of funnelling questions are where you start with very general questions and gradually narrow down to more closed questions (asking for more detail at each level) or you start with closed questions and then broaden out to more open questions. The former is used for investigations and research, whilst the latter is used to make people feel comfortable and to gain their confidence and interest (e.g. when you first meet someone). It is important with funnelling questions to get the balance of questions right, being conscious to adapt your questions as you go along.
Rhetorical. A rhetorical question isn't really a question as it doesn't actually require an answer (e.g. Who would not want an hour for their lunch break? Isn't this new office perfect for us?). Rhetorical questions are often used by leaders, presenters and politicians to engage the listeners, to promote thought and for encouraging people to agree with their point of view. Take care in using rhetorical questions as they can result in people thinking you don't want to hear from them at all.
One final point when thinking about the questions you ask is to consider and listen to the different answers you may receive. Answers can be direct, honest, untrue, out of context, distorted or partial and you may find that the person you are talking to avoids answering the question or refuses to answer. What will you do in each of these circumstances, maybe you will need to ask another or different type of question?
Hopefully this article has got you thinking about the questions you ask at work and in your business.
Author: Liz Makin
Published: September 2018
Makin It Happen has a range of personal development online courses to purchase, created by Liz Makin, including communication, resilience, time management, stress management and coaching. Liz Makin also provides personalised business coaching, business mentoring and stress management services to business owners, directors, managers and professionals.
Please call Liz on 01780 765270 or email Liz@makinithappen.co.uk
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