17 Sep 2015 19:18 IST

Ask, and you shall be answered

Questions bring more knowledge and understanding; so don’t hesitate to ask the question on your mind

How can we set the Q-and-A ball rolling? Often, at seminars, workshops and business meetings, the participants are too shy to ask, or simply don’t have the right question in mind.

I pondered this when the last speaker on our panel, for a talk on Diversity and Inclusiveness at Nasscom, threw the floor open for questions and was faced with a wall of silence.

“Aren’t there any questions?” she asked. The silence continued. The audience had to be prompted before a man hesitantly stood up and asked a question. It turned out that many in the audience shared the same doubt, but were hesitant to stand up and ask.

Coming from the Indian education system, I understand this, for in my early days, I would often think, “I’ll wait till the session is over and ask a friend/colleague what the speaker/teacher meant.” Then, I realised that this face-saving approach was less desirable than sounding interested and intelligent by asking the right question in the right way.

In all humility, I have, in Dale Carnegie’s terminology “won friends and influenced people” by working on this skill. In this article, I’d like to discuss questions, their purpose and how to make them effective.


Let’s remember C-L-U-B — 4 attributes of questions:

Compliment the speaker: Questions show the speaker that the audience has been listening to them , is interested in what they had to say, and wants to know more.

Learning opportunity for other listeners: Like the man I had mentioned earlier, by standing up and seeking clarification, you’re helping out a lot of people. If you hold back, it is a lost chance.

Useful to the questioner: If framed correctly, questions bring more knowledge, information and understanding, which add up to more power.

Forges a bond between the questioner and the questioned: Many times, I have had the speaker respond to my e-mails.Other participants also shared their views after a session when an interesting question is asked. The interaction has even brought me business later on.

So, they’re really important tools if used thoughtfully and correctly.

Question the Question

What is it that you’re seeking? More information, or a clarification? Do you want to encourage the speaker to elaborate, or are you looking for a short, succinct answer? Do you want to persuade someone to do something, or agree to do something your way? Frame the question depending on what you want.

There are several types of questions to choose from — open- and close-ended ones, probing questions, binary questions, echo questions and persuasive questions.

Close-ended questions work well when we need a specific answer. For example, “Would you suggest we speak with John about this?” or “How many people will you need to complete this project within the deadline

Probing questions will take you deeper into the subject. For example at a meeting, “Do you think Deepa will be able to handle the testing part of the project?” or “In keeping with Swachch Bharat thinking, do we need to introduce a ₹1,000-fine for littering in our company?”

Open-ended questions make for more insightful information gathering. Suppose a team member comes to you with a complaint about the working system. Instead of offering solutions, you ask first, “Right, Hari, I’ve understood the problem. Now, what do you think we should do to rectify the situation?” This way, you’re not only getting some possible solutions, you’re also gaining an insight into Hari’s mindset. Is he a chronic complainer, or is he genuinely interested in sorting out the problem? Also, when you make it a two-way brainstorming exercise, you’re more likely to come up with a solution which works and has a buy-in from Hari too!

Leading and persuasive questions

Leading questions are powerful tools that nudge a person into thinking his options through and coming up with the response we really want from him. “Do you think attending this course will help you upgrade your skills?” you ask a team member who has been reluctant to move out of the comfort zone of the role he’s been assigned. The question will force him to look at the advantages of learning something new. He’s much more likely to say “yes” and take that course, than if you opted to push him against the wall with a question that demanded a “yes” for an answer.

Persuasive questions are a branch of leading questions, and they’re an art form in themselves. They’re almost second nature to the successful salesperson. “This TV model will look so good in that corner of the room, won’t it?” he asks enthusiastically , and you’ll find yourself nodding in agreement, or at worst, pointing to a different corner and saying it’d look better there. Either way, he’s made a sale!

Personally, when I problem-solve with my team, I’ve found the binary question most useful. “Is budget the real hurdle, or is it time?” I ask. My team pauses to ponder, and the answer points the way out.

Questioning and Listening

I will round off with some tips for effective questioning:

- The art of questioning goes hand-in-hand with the art of listening.

- Frame questions that are short and to the point.

- Ask only one question at a time, don’t reword it.

- Give the person enough time to respond.

- Be courteous. If you’re not satisfied with an answer, rephrase or repeat your question, but never heckle. And after you’ve received a response, say “Thank you”.

So why not join the questioners’ CLUB?

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