"A prudent question is one half of wisdom."
Questioning is one way we move from simply informing people to genuinely communicating with them. When we ask questions we are allowing ourselves to learn, share, have ideas, compare our perspective with others, have insights and find out how others think or feel.
Types of questions
There are many different types of questions. To keep it simple we talk about three types:
- Open questions: these questions start with what, why, when, where, how and who. Open questions do not invite a specific answer. They create discussion or they elicit a wide range of answers. You are asking people to talk about how they feel or to share their thoughts and ideas. It is good for creative problem solving.
- Closed questions: these questions are specific and must be answered with a yes or no, or with details as appropriate. Generally they elicit one-word answers. This can be useful when you need to close down a discussion or when checking facts.
- Probing or "so what" questions. They extend the open questions by asking for more information or pushing people to elaborate on their ideas. You could ask "so what could you do to...?" If you want to influence or lead the discussion you can use this to ask "so what about...".
Dealing with objections and difficult questions
People generally don’t mind having an objection. They do mind not having a voice. If an objection or issue has been raised it is important to listen and respond. Objections come in many different forms. Try to understand what the objection is and discover why it is being made – is there an underlying problem or issue?
Listen with empathy
Whatever the objection or issue, the first golden rule is to listen with empathy. This means understanding the other’s point of view from an intellectual and emotional perspective; their thinking and feelings. People should see you listening (eye contact, nods, smiles etc) and hear you speak in a calm and constructive manner.
Reflect on what you have heard
Recap what has been said and summarise what you heard. Avoid overly emotional language. Be clear on the core of the objection or issue. For example "so let me check back... your argument is that our goals will not be achieved... is that right?" "From what I‘ve heard you are feeling angry about this..." Encourage the person with the objections to talk about it and, if possible, to come up with some solutions.
To turn objections in to a constructive dialogue, you need to explore them without making judgements. This needs to be handled sensitively. Try to understand what lies at the heart of the problem. Why is that the case? Why do you say that? Acknowledge how people feel and be empathetic. Ultimately you need to decide how far you want to take this: can you resolve the issue together, do you need to involve others, can you park it and return to it at a more appropriate time?
No matter what type of question, remember:
When asking: be clear, concise and factual. Try to keep emotions out of your language and tone of voice. Ask one question at a time and wait for an answer. Don’t panic or start restating or explaining the question – just say it and wait.
Take your time. Speak when you are ready. You may wish to explain that you are trying to think of the best way to phrase your question.
Inquire don‘t interrogate. Keep assumptions out of your questions and be aware of your tone and body language.
When answering: be sure you understand what is being asked. Listen to the end of the question before answering. If you have to, clarify the meaning. Do your homework. Where possible be prepared and anticipate what questions may be asked.
Pause and think before you answer. Take your time, it shows that you are taking this seriously. Be honest. If you don’t know, say so. Don’t bluff or gloss over a subject. Tell them when and how you will find an answer. Keep calm and neutral. Try to see past the emotions and don’t take it personally. Empathise but don’t react.