I talk. A lot. I fill in gaps in conversations. I probably overshare. I secretly admire people who can go through an entire conversation without sharing anything personal… or anything at all. Sometimes I judge them, too, because, you have got to share enough to keep the conversation going. Or do you?

Listen More Talk Less

Recently I took a short training at work called “Listen More, Talk Less” and it all seems to come down to – not sharing – but asking better, more powerful questions.

When we focus on listening (rather than waiting for an opportunity to speak (guilty!)), we can come up with good questions that can keep a conversation going.

I am definitely going to practice this skill.

What is a powerful question?

So what is a powerful question? You will know it when you see it.

Look at the four questions below – which is more powerful?

  1. What time is it?
  2. What possibilities exist that we have not thought of yet?
  3. What does it mean to be ethical?
  4. Did you take a shower?

Obviously questions 2 and 3 will yield more elaborate answers.

A powerful question:

  • Is thought-provoking and invites reflection and finding deeper meaning
  • Expands possibilities or focuses attention
  • Brings underlying assumptions to light
    (Please read my article on Reflexive Practice that addresses the fact that all of us are ‘subjective’ in the sense that we are all products of our own social, political, and cultural elements which also affect our worldview)
  • Stimulates curiosity and creativity
  • Can help a group move forward

The dimensions of a powerful question

There are three dimensions to a powerful question:

1. Construction

The construction of a question can make a critical difference in either opening our minds or narrowing the possibilities we consider.

In qualitative research the question construction is particularly important for the quality research (as used in surveys, for example)

Here are some common problems in constructing survey questions:

Loaded question

The question contains a hidden trap or implication.
e.g. Do you support the policy that would unfairly increase 10% student tuition every year?

Forced-choice question

Multiple response choices that are not inclusive of all options.
e.g. Do you prefer to eat eggs or cereal for breakfast?

Leading question

The question may cause respondents to answer in a way that is biased.
e.g. Most students believe that changes at the University have been positive. Do you agree?

Unless a why question is carefully constructed, it can evoke a defensive response, because people try to justify their answer rather than proceed in a spirit of inquiry. They are sometimes better replaced with “what” questions: “Why do you think like that?” vs “How did you come to that understanding?”

2. Scope

The scope of a question must match the need we are addressing or the discovery that we’re trying to make. For more powerful questions, narrow the scope.

For example:
How can we best communicate as a team? vs. How can we change the social norms in our society?

Sometimes broad questions are interesting, but are outside the scope of our capacity and therefore not as powerful.

3. Assumption

Almost all questions, explicit or implicit, have some degree of assumptions built into them.

We should be able to frequently ask ourselves:

  • What assumptions or beliefs are we introducing with this question?
  • How would we approach this issue if we had an entirely different belief system?

It’s like Conducting a Job Interview

It doesn’t seem that much different from asking questions in job interviews. You are (hopefully) genuinely interested in the person who may become a member of your team and you certainly want to listen to them. You do that by asking powerful questions.

Open Questions

Open questions often begin with who? what? which? when? where? why? Or how?

They require more than just yes or no responses. Open questions such as “tell me about …” can start off a new topic or subject and get the other party talking.

Comparative Questions

These can be effective in starting off a conversation and at the same narrowing the scope.
“How does living here compare with living in your old neighborhood?

Probing Questions

In job interviews, these sorts of questions are designed to search for information in greater depth. They are vital for detail and for focusing the candidate and interview on particular areas. Usually they will be ‘open’ in format, but aimed at eliciting specific information.

Probing questions may be in the form of:

  • ‘encouraging’ questions, e.g. “that sounds interesting, tell me more”,
  • ‘extension’ questions e.g. “what happened next?”
  • ‘clarifying’ questions, e.g. “so what did you do then?”

I am definitely going to practice asking powerful questions in order to improve my listening skills. Listen more, talk less is always a good advice.

Remember how sometimes you walk away from a conversation with someone who asked you many question about yourself and your experiences and you think what an amazing conversationalist they are, when maybe they didn’t say anything much at all. Chances are, they asked you the right questions.

I think that is one of the main points Dale Carnegie makes in his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. Be interested in other people. And what better way to show your interest than to ask great questions.

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