Asking questions

The more you can find out about a person's needs, wants, interests and situation, the easier it is to reach win-win outcomes. You learn more about people by asking them the right questions and by taking the time to listen to their answers.

People also tend to respond well when they feel their opinion is being sought genuinely by another person, particularly in a business situation where conversations can have important consequences for both parties.

Types of questions

You can use the following types of questions in any business situation:

  • open questions - questions which require a person to elaborate or explain, helping to build rapport and encouraging them to open up. Well-chosen open questions encourage responses to questions you might not have thought to ask; for example, 'How has your business changed in the last few years?'
  • closed questions - questions which require only a short, specific answer, such as 'yes' or 'no', such as 'Are you happy with the proposal?' These are good for finding out facts, limiting or guiding a discussion in a particular way and gathering specific information from which you can generate an open question.
  • probing questions - more targeted questions designed to develop a more specific understanding of the other party's view on a matter. For example: 'How could I change my offer so that this proposal will be a win-win for both of us?'
  • confirmation questions - used when you need to be sure the other party understands your message. 'What benefits do you think this proposal will bring to your organisation in the next year?'
  • summary confirmation questions - used to clarify your understanding of the other party's needs. For example: 'Could I summarise what you've just told me so I can check I've understood you? You said that you want a computer system that will allow you and your staff to complete their tasks in half the time, and training for all your staff on using this new system?'

Using questions in a conversation

Generally, you will have most success when using a range of question types in a conversation. Using open and closed questions together can help you guide a conversation and encourage the other party to contribute.

Using only open questions can result in digression - a conversation straying off course. Using only closed questions can make it too easy for the answering party to say just yes or no. Because they only encourage a basic response, closed questions are not good rapport builders or conversation starters. It is therefore important to use both types of questions for maximum success and engagement.

Question styles to avoid

Some types of question do not lend themselves well to business situations. These include:

  • destructive questions - 'So you're saying it's my fault?'
  • leading or manipulative questions - 'You'll have that done by tomorrow, right?'
  • multiple questions at once - 'When will you want it? Or don't you want it? You can't get it anywhere else can you?'

Asking these kinds of question does nothing for your credibility or your ability to negotiate efficiently and effectively.

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