Why are questions so important? (Questioning skills)

Most people appreciate the importance of questioning skills in selling, training, coaching, counselling (especially Cognitive Based Therapy – CBT) and commercial conversations. In this post I explore different types of questions and how they can be used in various business scenarios. Why are questions so important? (Questioning skills).

The importance of questions

Children learn by asking questions. Toddlers are well-known for responding to everything with “Why?”

Mahatma Ghandhi is attributed as saying “If you don’t ask, you don’t get”.

You push when you tell people – you are using your energy. So the natural reaction for the other person is to resist. But you pull by asking people – you ignite their energy. A question appeals to their expertise, boosts their confidence and creates a sense of choice and autonomy.

Curiosity is a super-power. It is one of the four human attributes that differentiate us from machines. I’ve explored the reasons why curiosity is to important and valuable to us: What is curiosity and why is it important in business relationships? (Video) (kimtasso.com). And you might like to take a deeper dive with this book: The Human Edge – How curiosity and creativity are your superpowers (kimtasso.com)

“I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious” Albert Einstein

“Don’t listen to the person who has the answers, listen to the person who has the questions” Albert Einstein

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” Stephen Covey

Sometimes, people are afraid to ask questions. They may be afraid they will be told “No” and the fear of rejection is strong. They may think that they should already know the answer. They may worry that they may look silly. They may be concerned that the answers may take them into a conversation where they know little. Yet questions are important for so many areas of business and social life. The use of incisive questions can help you build your personal power. And they can help you foster collaboration.

“He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever” Chinese proverb

Types of questions

Most of us know about the difference between closed questions and open questions.

Closed questions are where the answer is either “Yes” or “No”. Not so helpful when you are trying to learn more, but helpful if you are trying to get a definite answer. So they are often used when checking for commitment. Or closing a deal.

Open questions require a longer response. Rudyard Kipling famously talked about “his six serving men” or the five Ws and H: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.

But there are many other types of questions that are used for different purposes – for example:

  • Alternative option questions – These are a type of closed question – they offer more than one option. For example: “Do you prefer option A or option B?”. You see this in multiple choice questions and they can be used as a closing technique.
  • Clarifying questions – We may ask for further information to develop our understanding or to check that we have understood properly. We ask questions to avoid making wrong assumptions or adopting the wrong focus. 
  • Combined questions – If we wish to deter people from automatic answers to questions then we can combine questions to provoke a more thoughtful response. For example, “How are you today?” usually elicits the automatic “Fine thanks”. But “How are you today and is it better than yesterday?” will make people pause to consider how their feelings compare with those they had the previous day.
  • Calibrated questions – These are open-ended questions (typically starting with “how” or “what”) which are designed to keep a conversation flowing by extracting information, uncovering motivations and introducing new perspectives. See the section below on negotiation. 
  • Feedback questions – Often used to assess someone’s views or satisfaction. The art of giving feedback – top tips (kimtasso.com) Many client listening programmes use feedback questions – sometimes collecting numeric (quantitative) responses – such as with NPS. Sometimes verbal (qualitative) responses.  
  • Hypothetical questions – We can explore future scenarios. A classic version of this might be “What if?” questions during sensitivity analysis. And we can use these questions to assess problem-solving skills. 
  • Icebreaking questions – These encourage people to relax and talk about themselves or to each other. 
  • Interview and behavioural questions – We might ask questions to learn about past behaviour in order to predict future behaviour. In interviews, it is common to ask for examples of how people acted in the past. The STAR method can be used to respond: Situation, Task, Action and Result.
  • Leading questions – These questions lead you to agree with a particular viewpoint. Sometimes these are called loaded questions. 
  • Probing questions – This is where we pick up on something that somebody says and ask for further information so that they elaborate. We dig deeper into their meaning. We might ask them to be more specific or for examples.

See also What is Socratic questioning? (Questioning skills) (kimtasso.com)

Questions in rapport building, conversations and networking

Questions help to build rapport. When we meet someone, we show interest in them and learn about them (to build empathy and see the world through their eyes An introduction to emotional intelligence (EQ) and empathy (Video) (kimtasso.com)) by asking questions.

Questions are important when we meet someone new. For example, when we first meet at a networking event. A familiar technique is:

  • Inquire – Ask a sincere (open ended) question
  • Follow up – Ask a follow-up question
  • Relate – Share something about you to break up your questions and keep the conversation balanced

Questions help us form an emotional connection. And to find some areas of common ground.

Questions in problem-solving – Reframing

Questions help us explore underlying assumptions.

Think about cognitive biases (many are explored here: Changing behaviour in the workplace to boost productivity – psychology (kimtasso.com)). Confirmation bias means that we have a tendency to search for, interpret, favour and recall information in a way that confirms or supports our prior beliefs or values.  Confirmation bias may mean that we have a narrow view of things. There are also issues around limiting assumptions or limiting beliefs (see: Before your set your goals – check your limiting assumptions (kimtasso.com)).

Labelling theory  suggests that if we label someone or something, we are more likely to pay attention to those behaviours that support our label. Therefore, if we reframe our label – seeing the positive where we have seen the negative beforehand – we may perceive people differently. Two big guns of communication – face-time and reframing (kimtasso.com)

Redefining and reframing a problem is often a step in problem-solving methods. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving – Some tips (kimtasso.com)

Questions in strategy – Driving

The simplest model for strategy development uses:

  1. Where are we now? (Analysis)
  2. Where do we want to be? (Objectives)
  3. How will we get there? (Strategy)

And in the great book by the former leaders of P&G “Playing to win” they argue strategy is the answer to these five interrelated questions:

  1. What is your winning aspiration? The purpose of your enterprise, its motivating aspiration.
  2. Where will you play? A playing field where you can achieve that aspiration.
  3. How will you win? The way you will win on the chosen playing field.
  4. What capabilities must be in place? The set and configuration of capabilities required to win in the chosen way.
  5. What management systems are required? The systems and measures that enable the capabilities and support the choices.

Questions in coaching – Empowering

Coaching is a process to help people learn, act and change. Most coaching processes are based on structured questions to help the person being coached to find their own ideas and solutions. By working out the answers to questions, they build their confidence and are more likely to act if they have developed the answers themselves.

One of the most famous frameworks for coaching questions was developed by John Whitmore and is called GROW (Soft skills: Introduction to coaching – Three frameworks (kimtasso.com))

  • What is your Goal?
  • What is your Reality?
  • What are your Options?
  • How Willing are you to act?

Questions in consulting – Diagnosing

Data analysis, research and questions are a fundamental part of the fact-finding and diagnosis stages of consulting projects.

In a leading book on consulting Consulting skills 3 – Book review: Humble Consulting by Edgar h Schein (kimtasso.com) the author articulates his model as “you are committed to being helpful, bring a great deal of honest curiosity and have the right caring attitude, a willingness to find out what is really on the client’s mind”. He also talks about questions in the context of suggestive enquiry (forces new content into the story) and process-oriented enquiry (the ways things happen now and how they might happen in the future).

Questions in persuasion and negotiation – Influencing

Questions play an important role in persuasion and negotiation too. Some negotiators suggest you avoid using “Why” questions as it can imply criticism.

leader’s guide to negotiation – book review (kimtasso.com) Author Simon Horton tackles questions in negotiations from a variety of perspectives.

In Never split the difference: Negotiating by Chris Voss (kimtasso.com) there are some great examples of calibrated questions included are:

  • “What about this is important to you?”
  • “How can I help to make this better for us?”
  • “How would you like me to proceed?”
  • “What is it that brought us into this situation?”
  • “How can we solve this problem?”
  • “What’s the objective?”
  • “What are you trying to accomplish here?”

He also suggests answering every demand with a question. This buys more time. And it puts pressure on your counterpart to come up with answer and to contemplate your problems when making their demands. He calls this forced empathy. 

Questions about behaviour – Changing

In the great book on nudging Book review: Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth (kimtasso.com) there is a lot of material on how you can harness unconscious biases to frame choices by being careful about how you prime people before asking questions. And how you include choices in questions to motivate the action you desire.

There’s evidence to show that people reply differently when given two or three choices.

Questions to get help – Enlisting

In the book Reinforcements: How to get people to help you by Heidi Grant (kimtasso.com) it shows how you can use questions to get the information or help you need.

The four steps to getting the help you need include:

  1. The helper needs to notice that you might need help. People don’t attend to everything happening around them – Inattentional blindness
  2. The helper needs to believe that you desire help. People are not mind readers and have a general fear of looking foolish – audience inhibition. People assume that if you want help, you will ask for it
  3. The helper needs to take responsibility for helping. If lots of people could help they might ask  “Why me?” – Bystander effect
  4. The helper needs to be able to provide the help you need. Competing commitments can be an issue

Asking for and obtaining commitment to a favour before revealing the request yielded an 84% co-operation rate, compared to only 57% for the non-favour version (Bohns and Flynn). The author also mentions Amanda Palmer’s “The art of asking” who argued that you should not apologize for needing help as apologies are distancing.

Questions when selling – Exploring

A key element of selling is to explore client needs and discover motivations for changing. Most sales frameworks are based on evidence that shows the right order in which we ask questions. This is based on the concept of the questioning funnel.

SPIN selling Neil Rackman, a research psychologist at Huthwaite Research, analysed more than 35,000 sales calls over a period of 12 years. The focus of the research was the use of open and closed questions in complex sales situations. The result was the SPIN approach which provides a consultative and diagnostic approach to complex selling situations. SPIN describes the types and order of questions (Situation, Problem, Implication and Need payoff) to be asked during the investigating stage to convert implied needs into explicit needs. There’s a good source of information here: http://www.huthwaite.co.uk/training-solutions/sales-training/spin-selling/

Smarter selling – Similar to SPIN selling, this approach advocates the SHAPE order for sales questions: Surface (the facts), Hunt (for challenges), Adjust (to signal direction), Paint (for positive future outcomes) and Engage (move to action) Book Review: Smarter selling – Next generation sales strategies (kimtasso.com)

Insight selling – The RAIN model suggests you follow the process of: Rapport, Aspirations/Afflictions, Impact/Inquiry/Influence, New reality) Insight selling – building on consultative selling models (kimtasso.com)

To develop a value proposition you need to answer four questions: Why act? Why act now? Why us? Why trust us? These questions address the components of a value proposition (valuable, differentiated and substantiated). You might use the “So what?” question to help you translate features into benefits.

I thought this was a great technique for objection handling in selling. Especially: “What about this doesn’t work for you?” or “What don’t you want?”

After you ask a question – LISTEN to the answer

Of course, if we ask questions then we must make an effort to listen to the responses. Listen with your ears and eyes. Often, we will ask questions while listening both to encourage the person to continue speaking and to show that we understood – or need further clarification. There’s material on active listening techniques:

Active Listening (Video) (kimtasso.com)

Coaching skills – the importance of active listening – Kim Tasso

Don’t jump to conclusions – Coaching and Consulting skills (kimtasso.com)

What are your thoughts and tips on questioning skills?

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