When Thomas Kuhn said “the answers you get depend on the questions you ask,” he was definitely onto something.
Gaining an understanding of the specific types of questions you ask not only helps you achieve better answers and build stronger relationships, but it’ll also help you avoid misleading people, or worse, prevent you from suffering a dreaded communication breakdown.
Let’s start with everyday types of questions people ask, and the answers they’re likely to elicit.
Closed questions (aka the ‘Polar’ question)
Closed, or ‘polar’ questions generally invite a one-word answer, such as ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For example, ‘do you drive?’ or, ‘did you take my pen?’ They could also include answers to factual or multiple choice questions, such as ‘what’s your name’, or ‘would you like tea, coffee, or water?’
They’re popular as icebreaker questions in group situations because they’re easy to answer. Of course, most questions can be opened up for further discussion, including closed questions — but more on that later.
Useful for: warming up group discussions, getting a quick answer
Open-ended questions require a little more thought and generally encourage wider discussion and elaboration. They can’t be answered with a simple yes or no response. For example: ‘what do you think of your boss?’ Or ‘why did you choose that car?’
Useful for: critical or creative discussion, finding out more information about a person or subject
These questions are useful for gaining clarification and encouraging others to tell you more information about a subject. Probing questions are usually a series of questions that dig deeper and provide a fuller picture. For example: ‘when do you need the finished project, and is it ok if I email it to you?’
Useful for: seeing the bigger picture, encouraging a reluctant speaker to tell you more information, and avoiding misunderstandings
These questions are designed to lead the respondent towards a certain desired positive or negative route.
In the workplace, you might encounter leading questions such as: ‘do you have any issues with the project?’, or ‘did you enjoy working on that project?’ The former subtly prompts the respondent towards a negative response; the latter towards a positive. Asking ‘how did you get on with that project’ will get you a more balanced answer.
Leading questions could also involve an appeal at the end that’s designed to coerce the respondent into agreeing with the speaker. For example, ‘this project is going well, isn’t it?’ encourages the respondent to say ‘yes’. This works particularly well because psychologically, we prefer saying yes over no. So when we’re put on the spot, we’ll usually opt for the former.
Useful for: building positive discussions, closing a sale, steering a conversation towards an outcome that serves your interest
A word of warning: It’s important to use leading questions carefully; they can be seen as an unfair way of getting the answer you want.
Loaded questions are seemingly straightforward, closed questions — with a twist: they contain an assumption about the respondent. They’re famously used by lawyers and journalists to trick their interviewee into admitting a fundamental truth they would otherwise be unwilling to disclose.
For example, the question: ‘have you stopped stealing pens?’ assumes the respondent stole a pen more than once. Whether she answers yes or no, she will admit to having stolen pens at some point.
Of course, the preferred response would be: ‘I have never stolen a pen in my life’ But it’s not always easy to spot the trap. These questions are quite rightly seen as manipulative.
Useful for: discovering facts about someone who would otherwise be reluctant to offer up the information
As with a funnel, these questions begin broadly before narrowing to a specific point — or vice versa.
When meeting someone new, we usually begin with specific, closed questions, such as ‘what’s your name?’ and ‘what do you do?’ – before broadening out into more open-ended questions, such as ‘why did you choose to be a firefighter?’ as you become more comfortable talking to each other.
The reverse — beginning with a broad question before honing in on something specific — is often used when questioning witnesses to gain the maximum amount of information about a person or situation. For example, ‘what do you do for a living? Do you work nights? Did you see a break-in? Was there more than one person?’ And so on.
Funnel questions can also be used to diffuse tension: asking someone to go into detail about their issue distracts them from their anger and gives you the information you need to offer them a solution, which in turn calms them down and makes them think something positive is being done to help them.
Useful for: building relationships, discovering very specific information, diffusing arguments
Recall and process questions
Recall questions require the recipient to remember a fact. For example, ‘what’s seven times seven?’ and ‘where did you put the keys?’ or ‘What’s your login password?’ Process questions, on the other hand, require the respondent to add their own opinion to their answer. These types of questions can be used to test the respondent’s depth of knowledge about a particular topic. For example: ‘what are the advantages of asking a closed question?’ or ‘why are you the right person to lead this project?’
Useful for: encouraging critical thought and in-depth evaluation of a subject in tests, interviews or discussions
These are a different beast altogether because they don’t really require an answer. They’re simply statements phrased as questions to make the conversation more engaging for the listener, who is drawn into agreeing with you.
For example, ‘isn’t it nice working with such a friendly team?’ is more engaging that ‘this team is friendly’, which doesn’t require any mental participation from the respondent.
Rhetorical questions are often used by coaches or public speakers for effect to get the audience thinking and agreeing. In this way, they’re a not-too-distant cousin of the leading question.
Useful for: persuading people, building engagement
A word on tone
Tone, context, intonation, and body language all help us make sense of what is being asked of us. But what happens when you throw technology into the mix and place a digital screen between the interlocutors?
Emojis and gifs have made their way into the workplace, and they’re here to stay. Moreover, there’s no denying that they enhance interpersonal communication and go some way towards fulfilling our need for something a little more human.
In fact, when used well, emojis and gifs can make workplace communication a little more fun for everyone. When asking questions over email, or via a team chat app such as Typetalk, why not enhance your message with a gif or two? Obviously, use a little discretion — you may want to hold back when talking to a new client. But for general chat and team collaboration at work, it’s the next best thing to talking face-to-face.
With a certain level of carefulness towards tone and a knowledge of how to ask questions in the right way, you can get a lot more out of your work relationship.