The Art of Questioning

Skilful questioning is an art. Put simply, some questions are useful and some are not. In active listening, questions of clarification are important to get the facts right, but you rarely need the whole story. When listening more deeply it is those questions that help individuals to discover more about themselves that are most useful.

There are many pitfalls with questioning, some of which are detailed below. The single most effective way of avoiding them is to keep questions simple, almost deceptively simple, such as:

  • What do you want?
  • What did you learn?
  • What do you think?
  • How do you know that?
  • Where do you want to go from here?

Such questions are more likely to help an individual to reflect for themselves, to hear what they are saying, to check what they truly feel and hence to create awareness.

‘What are open questions?’

The above is an open question, because it cannot easily be answered with a one-word answer. It requires the individual to think and provide a longer answer. A closed question would be ‘Do you know what open questions are?’ Usually closed questions ask for a yes/no answer, and are less useful unless you actually want that. ‘Who, Where, How much’ may be good for checking specific facts, but are quite closed because they are likely to be answered by one or two words without illuminating a person’s thinking.

The use of open questions to move things on is not a new concept. As long ago as 400 BC, the philosopher Socrates developed a way of asking questions that prompt new perspectives on a particular issue. Limiting beliefs and automatic thoughts which support the beliefs hold people and organisations back, especially if there is an inconsistency between long-term values and current behaviour.

Examples of beliefs, which can be successfully challenged in this way, are:

  • I’m no good at budgeting
  • She’s always losing her temper
  • Targets are meaningless

Examples of Socratic questions:

  • What’s the alternative?
  • What if…?
  • To what extent do you believe that?
  • What’s the evidence?

Some further common pitfalls:

  • Multiple questions will confuse – “Is this what you really want or would you prefer the other option or maybe this could be delegated?”
  • Open questions are often understood in theory, but in practice closed questions creep in too easily.
  • Questions which ask for a limited or specific choice of answer and steer the individual in a particular direction… “Whose agenda is this – your own or the team’s?”
  • Questions which lead the person to say what the questioner seems to want: “Don’t you think this is a good idea?” will not provoke real thought.
  • Asking “Why?” is sometimes an unhelpful question. It asks for a logical reason which may be hard to fathom, and asks for a justification. If in turn the individual feels stupid or confronted, they are likely to become defensive and entrenched in their thinking.

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Fantastic course [Motivational Interviewing]! Totally relevant, understandable, practical and interesting. I look forward to using the skills and tools I learned. I was particularly impressed with Alasdair Cant. He is a brilliant trainer, knowledgeable, patient, engaging and clearly skilled at facilitating groups ensuring fun and learning.

Youth Justice Worker