Avoid asking “Do you understand what I’m saying?” Instead, ask the intended audience to demonstrate understanding. For example, you might ask something such as, “Just to clarify…what is your understanding of what we’re going to do?”
People are often reluctant to admit that they misunderstand. They may even think they understand when they actually do not. Checking for understanding helps ensure that the message sent = message received.
When asking questions, avoid the “open-to-closed switch” pitfall. This occurs when you ask an “open” question, but then rephrase it as a narrow, “closed” question. The following is an example of the “open-to-closed switch”: “Tell me about your training in advertising. Do you have experience in radio and TV?” Instead, give the respondent time to answer your first question.
In this “open-to-closed switch”, the respondent is likely to answer the second question only. Had the questioner given the respondent ample time to reply to the first question, it is likely that more and different types of information would have been offered.
When asking questions, avoid the common pitfall of forcing the respondent to answer “yes” or “no” or to choose among limited options when you really want to elicit more information. For example, instead of asking, “Are you familiar with our project team?” ask “What do you know about our project team?” Similarly, instead of asking, “Did you enjoy the weather or the recreational activities when you lived in Colorado?” ask “What did you enjoy most about living in Colorado?”
Oftentimes questions can not be adequately answered with a “yes” or “no” response. Additionally, these types of “closed” questions may force the respondent to provide an artificial response. Beginning the question with “What”, “How”, “Explain” instead of “Do you”, “Can you”, or “Would you” opens the questions up to let others do the talking, often revealing information you might not think to ask for.
When asking questions, ask only a single, precise question at a time instead of multiple questions. For example, instead of asking, “Tell me about your new position and how you found it”, ask either one of these questions.
There are several pitfalls to asking more than one question at a time: 1) respondents may not remember all parts of the question, 2) some will select the portion they want to answer and ignore the rest, or 3) they may feel they are being subjected to a “third-degree” interrogation.
When asking questions, use a “funnel” sequence when you want to understand a person’s frame of reference. A funnel sequence starts with general, more abstract questions, moving to more specific questions. For example, you might begin with “Tell me about yourself”, moving to questions such as “Describe a difficult work situation that you successfully resolved.”
This format of asking questions allows you to discover how others think about issues and what they deem important. For example, the person who responds to the general question, “Tell me about yourself” by discussing family provides insights into the role and importance of family in the person’s life.
Avoid asking “Why?” questions when listening for understanding. Almost any “Why” question can be converted into a “What” question. For example, instead of asking, “Why did you decide that?” ask “What factors led to this decision?”
“Why” questions invite justification. People often feel like they have to defend their ideas. On the other hand, people are more comfortable sharing ideas—even vague ones—when asked “what” questions.
Use “open” as opposed to “closed” questions to encourage conversation and dialogue. For example, instead of using a “closed” question such as, “Do you enjoy your job?”, use an “open” question such as, “Tell me about your current position”.
Open questions let others do the talking, revealing what they think is important, volunteering information you might not think to ask for. This might be especially useful in interviewing situations to allow the respondent to do the talking so the interviewer can listen, observe and determine the interviewee’s priorities. On the other hand, closed questions are restrictive in nature and are designed to elicit limited information.
Use “follow-up”, or “probing” questions to elicit further information during a conversation. To learn more information about a subject being discussed, try “informational probes” such as, “Tell me more about …” or “Explain further your point about…”. Another alternative is to use “nudging probes” such as, “I see…”, “And then?”, or “Go on.”
Probing questions delve into answers for more information, explanation, clarification and verification. Responses to probes can reveal information that you never would have uncovered otherwise. This can be especially useful in interviewing situations when the respondent provides answers that appear to be incomplete, superficial or vague.
Use “neutral”, as opposed to “leading” questions to encourage more honest and open conversation. For example, instead of asking a leading question such as, “I assume you like to work with people?” try “Tell me about your ideal work situation”. Alternatively, instead of saying, “Most workers favor the new labor contract; how do you feel about it?” try “How do you feel about the new labor contract?”
Neutral questions give respondents the freedom to answer as they wish, while leading questions nudge respondents toward answers the questioner wants to hear.
Use a clearinghouse probe when you are unsure if you have elicited all necessary information in an interview or a discussion. For example, you might ask, “What else have we not covered that would be important for me to know?” or “Have I missed anything that you can think of?”
This type of probe literally “clears out” a topic. It gives the other party the opportunity to volunteer information that would not seem initially warranted by the original question or discussion.