By Chris Simmons
“Judge of a man by his questions rather than by his answers” (the French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher, Voltaire)
Whether questioning a child about a fight on the playground or persuading a work colleague to support your latest initiative, HOW you ask questions directly shapes the answer you receive. Questions are tools, and like any tool, designed for specific jobs.
For example, closed-ended questions should result in very brief and precise answers. A “Yes/No” inquiry is the simplest form of this style. Other viable closed-ended questions would include “what’s your name,” “when were you born?” and so forth. This means is often used to verify information. It is also effective in a hostile interview, such as a parent and teenager discussing a broken curfew. In this scenario, closed-ended questions can help set the framework for the discussion AND build momentum with the defensive party by getting them used to answering your questions. The downside of this device, however, is that it does not create/enhance rapport, nor will it calm down the other individual.
One common mistake to avoid is the two-part question, such as “Did you fly to New York or take the train?” By giving the respondent a choice, if he/she took either mode of transportation, they could correctly answer with a simple “Yes” or the more sarcastic, “Yes, I either flew or took the train to New York.” Ask a focused question – get an exact answer.
Like a carpenter building a room, closed-ended questions can set the boundaries of the discussion. You can then use open-ended questions to allow the other party to add narration to your inquiry (e.g., “Tell me what happened.”). By its very nature, this approach encourages him/her to respond. In doing so, they will add detail, context, and insights to the topic of discussion. Additionally, the other party will now tend to relax as they have a greater role in the conversation.
That said, you should always be wary of this classic “red flag” — anytime the other party answers your question with a question, you are about to be deceived. This is especially true when their response is simply a restatement of what you just asked. This trick, especially common among children, is simply a stall. Its sole purpose is to buy time so that he/she can come up with a better answer.