The art of questioning

The first and foremost function of ques­tion­ing is to motivate interaction and communi­cation. By asking a question, you open the channels of communica­tion and begin a verbal inter­action. Once the questioning begins and a line of com­munication is open, the function of your questions may change. You will con­tinue to motivate communica­tion, but you may also use ques­tions as tools to gain other ends. The following repre­sent some common uses of questions:

  • to gain information
  • to uncover motives and gain Insight
  • to give information
  • to gain participation
  • to check understand­ing and interest
  • to stimulate thinking
  • to reach an agreement
  • to bring attention back to the subject
  • to give positive recog­nition

Types of Questions

No matter what the issue you are deal­ing with, you must know what kind of questions to ask to obtain the informa­tion you seek. Although there are many types of questions, there are only two basic forms: Open ques­tions, which are non-directive, and closed questions, which are directive.

Open Questions

Open questions are generally used to draw out a wide range of responses on a topic. This type of question comes in many differ­ent forms and is wide­ly used in facilitation. 

Samples of Open Questions are:

  • “How was that handled?”
  • “Why do you feel that happened?”
  • “How do you feel about that?

Closed Questions

Closed questions require narrow ans­wers to specific queries. The response to these ques­tions are typically yes, no, or some other very brief answer.

Closed Questions usually… 

  •         Allow specific facts to be ob­tained;
  •          Require little thought by the person responding;
  •           Are useful in the feedback process;
  •           Can be used to reinforce positive state­ments;
  •         Can be used to direct a con­versation to a particu­lar area.


Samples of Closed Questions are…

  • “Is that the way it happened?”
  • “Do you think it could be done better?”
  • “Is that your primary concern?”
  • “Do you think it should be changed?”

All other types of questions generally belong to a sub-category of open or closed ques­tions. Two of these sub-categories are particu­larly valuable: fact-finding questions and feeling-find­ing questions, as described below. 

Fact-Finding Questions

These factual questions usually take the form of closed questions. They are intended to gain impor­tant infor­mation on the current situa­tion, goals & objectives, and any other areas of information of value to you.

When asking fact-finding questions, it is important that you gather only that informa­tion that is neces­sary to the current situ­ation, and that the informa­tion you receive be heard and record­ed accurate­ly. In this regard, visible record­ing ( e. via flip­chart) of the data can be extremely useful.

Samples of Fact-Finding Questions are:

  • “Exactly how long does it take you to perform this aspect of your job?”
  • “How many people do you interact with on your job on a regular basis?”

Feeling-Finding Questions

These type of questions are generally open-ended. They are used to probe deeper for feelings, attitudes, convic­tions, val­ues, and motivations. Since fact-finding questions are at times per­sonal and poten­tially sensi­tive, it is important to keep in mind that some degree of rap­port and trust must be estab­lished before pursuing this line of question­ing.

Samples of Feeling-Finding Questions are:

  • “Why do you feel this is the best ap­proach?”
  • “How do you feel this situation came about?”
  • “What’s your opinion on that?

Other types of commonly used ques­tions include the following:

Clarifying Questions

  • “If I’m hearing you correctly, it appears that your major concerns are… … . Is that so?”
  • “Are you referring to the manufac­turing depart­ment or the R&D group?”

 Developmental Questions

  • “Can you give me an example of what you mean by that?”
  • “Would you elaborate on that point?”

Directive Questions

  • “So what are the other two issues we need to address?”
  • “Can we return to a point you made earlier…?

Closure Questions

  • “What do you see as the next steps?”
  • “How should we come to closure on this?”

Questioning Strategies and Techniques

By skillful questioning, you can initiate and sustain discussions that will even­tually achieve the results you seek. However, the manner in which a ques­tion is asked can be as impor­tant as the content. Since you want truth­ful, com­plete answers to your queries, structure your questions to maximize your chances of getting accurate infor­mation while maintain­ing your aud­ience’s goodwill and respect. The following general strategies can be help­ful as you prepare your quest­ions:

  • Use Correct Timing. Build rapport before asking poten­tially sensitive ques­tions. Consider the pace of ques­tion­ing.
  • Have a Questioning Plan. Have a general idea of what you would like to ask (types of questions; how asked) to get the information you require.
  • Know Your Audience. Where possible, do some home­work. Identify individual and group differ­ences, values, and back­ground.
  • Ask Permission to Ask Questions. Al­though not always required, this simple courtesy will put your audience more at ease.
  • Move from Broad to Narrow Questions. A broad, open-ended question allows the aud­ience maximum auton­omy to res­pond as they deem appropri­ate. Your ability to listen to their “open” responses will also guide you to your next ques­tion, which may tend to nar­row your inquiry.
  • Build on Previous Responses. Listen before questioning. Move the interac­tion along naturally through the build­ing process. Resist the temptation to formulate your next ques­tion while your audience is responding to the first.
  • Focus Your Questions. Rather than asking numerous questions on various subjects, pursue one line of thought so that the audi­ence can follow easily.
  • Have One Main Thought. Structure each question to address a single topic. Those that have too many thoughts can cause a break­down in understand­ing, which in turn often reduces the value of the res­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ponse. Two and three-part questions are an example of this.
  • Avoid Ambiguous Questions. A vague ques­tion tends to confuse the audi­ence and may result in an equally ambiguous answer.
  • Use Common Language. Keep your ques­tions free of buzzwords, slang, or tech­nical jargon that may not be under­stood by your audi­ence.
  • Balance Questioning with Self-Disclosure. Although not always appropriate for the facilitator, revealing some­thing about yourself, without necessarily getting into con­tent, can build trust and rapport.
  • Vary The Type of Questions. Try to use as many differ­ent types of questions as possible. This tends to minimize bore­dom while encouraging partici­pation.
  • Don’t Use Threatening Questions. Stay away from ques­tions that might threaten or offend your audience.
  • Provide a Rationale for Sensitive Ques­tions. When ques­tions must, or could touch on sensitive areas, explain why you are asking them. Also, if you don’t really need the infor­mation, it’s wise to move to a less threatening area.
  • Maintain a Consultative Atmosphere. Cre­ate and sustain a positive climate by pausing to allow ample time to res­pond, and by dem­on­st­rat­ing empathy, sensitivity and under­stand­ing through­out the process.

Relate to your audi­ence as human beings, not simply as a source of information. Be congruent in verbal and non-verbal behaviour.