Many of the people we meet in workshops are trained to ask questions and they do it very well – when solving problems. Yet they have difficulties when it comes to using questions to influence. So is there a good type of question? Let’s consider two applications of questioning: Problem Solving and Influencing.
Problem solving questions
Problem solving training teaches an analytical style of questioning using a mental decision tree of closed questions: ‘yes’ or ‘no’ branches to drive this deductive approach to problem solving. Or the ‘Five Why’s’ approach: a technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem – like the inquisitive child repeatedly asking ‘why’. In a courtroom, the adversarial style of question – ‘Did you…’ ‘Have you…’ ‘Don’t you agree that…’ can lead a person to reveal something. These work well when the task is to detect a defect, the cause of a problem or reveal a truth.
So these are good types of questions – right? Well yes, but they don’t work so well when you want to influence, as in a negotiation or when you are acting as a mentor or coach.
Influencing questions aim to have a person think things through for themselves: the consequences of taking a particular course of action; expanding their mindset or reaching their own solution. We often talk of getting someone’s ‘buy in’ and this doesn’t come from being told or coerced. So what types of question are good for influencing?
Ask “What…” or “How…” questions; avoid the closed or leading questions. Think of it rather like peeling away the layers of an onion as opposed to the decision tree approach. You may initially feel uncomfortably out of control, asking questions to which you don’t know the answer; not being the expert bringing a solution to the table. Arguably you are more in control, asking a simple open question to get the other person talking, then having the luxury of sitting back and listening carefully to their response. Peel more away using probing questions – “What’s an example of that?” A good question is one that follows on from the response the person has given to your previous question. Be curious as you listen, think of yourself as peeling away more layers.
And when you feel you’re finished with a line of questioning try asking our favourite question “What else?” You may be greeted with an initial silence – that’s good if you’ve got the person thinking. Now they may come up with responses that reveal a deeper layer as a result of your genuine curiosity.
So, is there a good type of question? Well yes and no. Better if you ask “what makes a good question?” Or have a look at our tutorial on questioning