Asking the right questions as a key to effective communication

26 Sep

There are many more things we do not know than we do know. More often than not, this ignorance stems from a simple fact that we have not been asked or have not asked ourselves the relevant questions. Questions can be very impactful in that they make us think about a certain issue we would not have considered otherwise. They allow us to put two and two together and come up with completely new insights. This post elaborates on the topic of asking the right questions, they role in effective communication and rounds up the topic of helping explored in the previous two blog posts.

In the previous two posts I wrote about three possible types of helping relationship (see here) and about the importance of building a balanced relationship with the person we are communicating with (see here). Questions play a crucial role in any helping relationship and in communication as such. As mentioned before, they firstly allow us to learn new things. Secondly, by asking somebody a question we demonstrate our interest in the other person and in the issues they are facing thus showing them our respect and building mutual trust. Finally, a well phrased question asked at a right time can very effectively influence someone’s thinking and make them realise new things. There are many types of questions and many ways of describing those types; it is however always important to keep in mind that the form greatly shapes thinking process of the person we are communicating with and we should therefore choose it carefully.

One of the simplest, but nevertheless very important, ways to classify questions is into open-ended and close-ended ones. Open-ended questions usually start with How, Why, What etc. and they prompt the other person to answer freely depending on what they feel is the most relevant thing to say. Close-ended questions give us very specific, usually yes-no answers. While close-ended questions are great to confirm or otherwise a hypothesis we might have, they are quite restrictive in their nature. Open ended questions are usually a more effective and useful communication tool.

Edgar Schein in his books on helping (mentioned in my earlier blog posts) puts a great emphasis on active inquiry, asking the right questions at the right time, as an effective way to communicate with and help others. He distinguishes three main types of inquiry – pure inquiry, exploratory inquiry and confrontive inquiry. They are all open ended questions. Each type is useful for different purpose and at a different point during an interaction.

Pure inquiry

The objective of pure inquiry is to learn more about the issue at hand as the other person sees it without influencing thinking of the person in any way. Being silent is often the most effective way to start as it lets the person bring up whatever she feels to be most important. Then we can ask questions such as:

What is the situation?
Can you tell me what is going on?
What is happening?
Can you give me some examples?
Tell me more…

Notice that these questions do not suggest any direction the person should explore. They are therefore very useful at the very beginning of a conversation as they allow us to better understand what is happening and to dispel any false assumptions we might have had before (we naturally recall what we know about an issue at hand when we hear about it and make certain assumptions about what is for example causing it not paying attention to the fact that this situation might be different and therefore that our assumptions might not be applicable). In terms of building an balanced relationship with the other person as mentioned in the earlier blog post, pure inquiry is a great way of doing so for it shows interest and clearly demonstrates an unbiased intention to understand what is happening.

Exploratory inquiry

When in exploratory inquiry mode, we start to steer the conversation in certain directions but still refrain from presenting our own ideas about what the other person should do. We can focus on (1) feelings and reactions, (2) hypotheses and causes or (3) actions taken or contemplated. We can ask questions such as:

(1) How did you feel about that?
What was your reaction?
How did others react?
(2) Why do you think it happened?
Why did you (or somebody else) do that?
(3) What did you do about it?
What are you going to do?
What options do you have?
What do you think you should do?

Notice that compared to pure inquiry, the questions here suggests a direction of further conversation but do not contribute any specific content. They can be used after we have learned more about the situation using pure inquiry questions and only once we have developed some level of mutual trust with the other person. If asked too early, the other person might become uncomfortable or get defensive if asked these questions.

Confrontive inquiry

During this last type of inquiry we can share our ideas about what we think the other person should do and ask them what they think about it. We can ask questions such as:

Did you …do something..?
Did you consider… ?
Have you thought about …?
Could/can you do…?

Here we are suggesting the direction as well as the content of further discussion. In doing so we directly confront the other person about something specific and as such run the risk of the person starting to feel even more uncomfortable and get even more defensive than during exploratory inquiry. We should use these types of questions only once we have developed a balanced and trusting relationship with the other person to avoid these pitfalls. Once we have done so however, confrontive inquiry is a great way of steering somebody in a certain direction and doing so in a much gentler way than simply saying do X, Y, Z.

Unless we are talking to a person we already know well and that trusts us, it is very important to start with pure inquiry then move onto exploratory and only then to confrontive inquiry. The differences might appear to be very subtle but from my own experience, our minds subconsciously react to them very strongly. It varies with situations as to when is the best time to switch from one to another but we should always think about how well developed our relationship with the other person is and phrase our questions accordingly. Try it next time somebody asks you for help or just wants to talk to you about something. Alternatively, try following similar steps if you want somebody to do something and you want them do have a real ownership of what you want them to do.

Note: Apart from being able to ask the right questions, being able to listen effectively is an equally important skill. See my older post of effective listening here. Additionally, Schein recommends visualising what the other person is saying as a very effective way to listen. I often do it myself and it really helps me to focus on and understand what the person is saying.

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