Development Cooperation Handbook/Communication Skills/Asking questions

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The simplest way to make sure that you understand a message is to listen intently enough to be able to repeat it back to those delivering it. Sometimes you need more information. The message just isn’t complete enough.The natural way to get that information is by asking questions. The shape those questions take will often determine the shape of the answers. Are you asking closed or open questions? Suppose you are expecting a report from one of your subordinates. It is due in less than 48 hours. So, you call him in for a report and the conversation—your exchange of messages—goes something like this:

“Have you finished the quarterly usage report?”
“Yes.”
“Is everything ready to go?”
“Nearly.”
“So it’s not actually finished?”
“Well, not exactly.”
“Will it take you long to finish it?”
“Not too long.”

  You have asked a series of closed questions. The nature of these questions demand short and specific answers. Over time, and if you ask exactly the right closed questions, you will find out exactly what the problem is and what “not too long” really means.

Your life would have been a lot simpler and the conversation much shorter, and less frustrating, if you had started out by asking: “Where do you stand with the quarterly report?” “What shape is it in?” “What do you still have to do before you can give it to me?” By using open questions, the person you are talking to is free—compelled—to tell you the entire story.

One of the best ways to learn how to ask open questions is to watch people being interviewed on TV news, or on talk shows.

The first thing to remember is that the process of asking question, of interviewing, is the process of having a conversation. In fact, an interview can be thought of as a directed conversation—a conversation with a purpose. As the interviewer, or the person asking the questions, you are the one who determines the directions. If and when it gets off the topic, it’s your job to bring it back in line.

As we saw earlier, closed questions are designed to get short answers with specific information. They are often a good way to set up open questions. Let’s look at the questions we ask earlier, and change them slightly.

In the first example, a series of closed question were asked that failed to produce all the information that was needed. We saw that you could just start with open questions: “Where do you stand with the quarterly report?” “What shape is it in?” It is often beneficial to combine the two styles. Like a reporter or TV interviewer, you ask closed questions to focus on the topic, get basic information, and, in effect establish the parameters for the rest of the interview:

“Is quarterly usage report ready to go?”
“Nearly.”
“So it’s not actually finished?”
“Well, not exactly.”


At this point you have limited information. The person you are talking to knows what the topic is and what you want to know. You now switch to a simple open question that forces an answer: “Tell me about it.” Once you get that answer you can go back and forth between closed and open questions until you have all the information you need.