What Is a Good Question? That’s a Good Question
Jan 24, 2019
By James O. Pyle and Maryann Karinch
What’s the difference between a good question and a bad question? Bad questions often elicit incomplete or misleading answers and can undermine rapport. On the other hand, good questions build rapport and lead to efficiency and competence. So knowing how to formulate good questions while avoiding the bad ones is a very valuable tool in your business tool box.
Here are the six types of good questions, with examples of each:
1. Direct. You pose a simple question using a single interrogative, one verb, and one noun or pronoun. For example:
- Who are you?
- What happened at the party?
- When did you arrive at the office?
- Where are the car keys?
- Why did you leave the meeting early?
- How much did you pay for that iPad?
2. Control. The goal here is not the discovery of information. You already know the answer to a control question when you ask it. It’s a way of finding out whether the other person is lying, uninformed, and/or not paying attention. Control questions are about discovery of behavior, patterns of speech, and level of truthfulness or accuracy. Perhaps it’s something you talked about before with the person. For example, if you know that someone on your human resources team alienated an employee because the employee sent an email to complain about the person, you might ask a control question like, “How did it go in the performance review with Pamela today?” You already have the information; you just want to find out how your HR person answers the question.
3. Repeat. You ask two different questions that seek the same information, arriving at the same information in two different ways. For example, if you asked, “How many people are on the sales force?” the person you’re speaking with might respond: “There are 22 in the field.” Later, when you’re talking with him about something different—areas where the company has a foothold, for example, you might ask, “How many sales regions do you have?” He might respond, “22,” which is a way of confirming the number of personnel on the sales force. It’s not an absolute test, but it gives value and credence to what he said before. The two different questions cross-check the information provided. Keep in mind that when using repeat questions, you may uncover discrepancies. If your source in this example responds that there are 28 sales regions, you would want some clarification. Maybe there’s a perfectly good reason—the sales force normally has a complement of 28, but there has been so much turnover lately, that they are six short—but the response does give rise to doubt the fact that there is a mismatch between the number of personnel and the number of sales territories. That mismatch must lead to further questioning to resolve the issue.
4. Persistent. You ask the same question in different ways to explore all facets of the desired information. In any exchange in which more than one answer might be given to a question, use persistent questioning to get a complete answer. Like repeat questions, persistent questions are also useful if you suspect that the person is not being truthful.
“Where did you go on your vacation to California?” might elicit the answer, “Disneyland.” Although it’s possible that Disneyland is the only place, it’s logical to follow that question with, “Where else?” Bypassing that repeat question and going straight to questions about Disneyland means that you miss the opportunity to get a complete picture of your friend’s California trip unless that information happens to leak out at some other time.
5. Summary. This question gives the source an opportunity to revisit their answer. Summary questions aren’t about determining veracity as much as feeding back to the source what she has said so she has the opportunity to think, “Did I actually say what I meant to say?”
Let’s say you sell cars, all kinds, from two-door hatchbacks to full-size luxury models. A young couple comes to the showroom and asks to test drive one of the luxury models.
“What will you use the car for most of the time?” you ask.
“Commuting back and forth to work. We work in the same building,” she says.
“What else will you use the car for?”
“Trips on weekends to see my parents. Stuff like that.” She pauses and adds, “They live a hundred miles away.”
“Why do you think the luxury car is the best choice?”
They exchange a glance. He says, “We like it better than the others.”
“What’s your favorite color?” you ask, looking straight at her.
“So let me see if I got this right. I hear you say you want a red, full-size car in the luxury class. How does this description fit what you want?” (You have framed your summary question with pertinent information in this case.)
They exchange another glance. He says, “We think a more subdued color might be better.”
“What about the luxury model makes you think it’s the best one for you?” (Again, this is a way of summarizing and verifying what you have heard. You want to find out if they are just so enamored with the look of the expensive car that they don’t want to consider anything else, or if the first answer was disguising a salient fact.)
“My dad says this is the safest car on the road.”
The answer to the summary question tells you they may, in fact, like it, but not because of how it looks. You read between the lines. They are just getting started in their life together. Her dad has probably sent them to the dealership to buy “the safest car on the road,” which he will help them buy. You decide to proceed with the sale, knowing that the down payment and loan application will probably give you the rest of the story.
Some people may not be comfortable asking a summary question like those embedded in this sales encounter because they don’t want to look simple minded or inattentive. If you ask the question exactly the same way you asked it the first time, then that might be a valid conclusion. You also don’t want to ask the same question two times in a row even if you do change the phrasing. By putting some distance between the first time you pose the question and the second, and rephrasing the question slightly, you should simply come across as someone who’s really interested in what the other person has to say.
6. Nonpertinent. This kind of question doesn’t pertain to the subject you really want to know about, but it’s one the person will probably not lie about; it serves the purpose of seeing what the truth “looks like” and getting the person to open up to you.
You might detect that the person answering your questions seems stressed out; a nonpertinent question could mitigate the tension. Or, maybe you need time to think or refer to your notes, so you use the question to just buy you a little space and time.
In asking pointed questions such as, “What project did you undertake in the past that failed?” and “How did you try to fix the problem?,” you can easily make a candidate feel as though he’s in the middle of a criminal interrogation. The candidate might say, “I tried to address the problem by rallying the department around a common goal—the way I get my son’s little league team to focus on hitting the ball.” You can give the candidate a break by asking, “How long have you coached little league?” before you return to the discussion of his error and how he attempted to fix it.
Finally, here are two ways to ruin questions that start off with all the requisite components and end up falling short of “good”:
1. Adding too many qualifiers. This can distract from the question. For example, “What did you have for breakfast at the diner where the vinyl counter stools are cracked and covered with duct tape?”
2. Not waiting for an answer. You ask, “What’s your favorite meal?” The person thinks a moment rather than responding immediately. You chime in, “Roast beef?” Silence is an effective questioning tool. Don’t open your mouth when you need to open your ears. Remember the “two ears, one mouth” rule to get the most out of your questions.
AMA offers a broad array of seminars that can help you hone your communication skills, including these:
How to Communicate with Diplomacy, Tact and Credibility
Communication Boot Camp
About the Author(s)
James O. Pyle and Maryann Karinch are coauthors of Find Out Anything from Anyone, Anytime: Secrets of Calculated Questioning from a Veteran Interrogator (Career Press, 2014). James O. Pyle is a human intelligence training instructor who has worked with the U.S. Army at the Defense Language Institute, United States Army Intelligence Center and School, and Joint Intelligence of the Pentagon. Maryann Karinch is the author or coauthor of 19 books, including The Body Language Handbook and I Can Read You Like a Book. She is founder of the literacy agency, The Rudy Agency.