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February 13, 2018
A New Approach to Questioning

Questioning is one of the most important skills of business people. Rapid change, volatility, creativity and innovation in the knowledge economy make effective questioning a necessity. In addition to the above, questioning is inherent in interviewing, problem solving, decision making, information seeking, updating and just about all business relationships. Over the years we’ve found that few have ever had training in the competency. In fact, many don’t realize that you can actually educate people for asking better questions and achieving better objectives. As a consequence, a huge majority succumb to “common-sense” questioning or a potpourri of strategies they’ve observed over years—strategies that ignore the complexity of the knowledge economy.


In this brief article, I intend to lay out the basics of questioning and add a new approach that has much to commend itself to the digital world.


Closed questioning

The most used and least useful form of questioning is the granddaddy of questioning: closed questioning. Closed questions such as “will you be able to meet the timeline?” or “have you updated the software?” or “who do you recommend for this development? limit the expected range of response to “yes/no” or “this/that” answers. Regardless of the questioner’s intent, closed questions always restrict the freedom of the other’s response. You’ll also notice that closed questions involve a judgment already made by the questioner. For example, if the interviewer were to ask “Is this salary adequate?” the implication is usually yes. And so the respondent has serious limitations being placed upon his ability to negotiate.


Open questioning

Open questions such as “tell me more about topic X?” or “how will you get your co-workers’ buy-in?” permit the other to respond in their own words. They don’t limit answers to the narrow range of choices presented by the closed question. Open questions are invitations to talk. Certainly, they free the other from the constraints of closed questions. But their drawback is that though they can bring relevant information to a conversation, they also open the door to irrelevant, long-winded, time-wasting interactions.


Neutral questioning: a new approach.

Neutral questions are actually a subset of open questions. They guide the conversation along the dimensions that are relevant to a meeting. In other words, the neutral question allows the source (questioner) to better understand a situation, the gaps or problems faced and the expected uses of a product or process--from the standpoint of others.


Neutral questions are always open in form and structured to talk about specific issues. They typically focus on specific elements of a problem, need or innovation: the objectives, situation, gaps and resolution. One of my clients, for example, was looking to limit the long hours he was working.


    To identify the objectives:

Tell me, what are you trying to do?

What are you trying to achieve?

What will that do for you?


    To assess the situation:

Help me understand the overall situation.

As far as you know, what kinds of things happened to cause this?

How did your new work setting impact the problem?


    To assess the gaps:

What have you tried thus far?

What worked a bit better?

What didn’t work at all?


    To assess the resolution:

(This final issue may take place several hours, days or weeks after the other three.)

How will this resolution of the problem satisfy your needs?

What about this resolution works well?

What do you see as its limitations?

As a result of this resolution, what else do you see that we might do?

Complex problems often require a recycling of the elements of questioning when the solutioning remains inadequate. The plus of recycling is that you’re working from newer insights, even though, by themselves, they may be inadequate.

In sum, then, neutral questioning provides the questioner with a tool for controlling the actual issues of the problem or innovation or X. At the same time, the technique provides the client (receiver) with control—with the freedom to unfold their stories in a human way—while avoiding premature diagnosis. It also allows the questioner to retain control over the description of the need and focuses the interaction on the most pertinent aspects of the receiver’s issue.


Neutral questioning is receiver oriented rather than problem oriented. It differs radically from traditional questioning that goes right to the product or service being considered.


What’s exceptionally unique about neutral questioning is that it avoids assumptions or imperfect processes and resolution. Often the initial definitions of a problem point to an inadequate or wrong resolution. But neutral questions keep the issue focused on the client or colleague, yet permit a fair amount of divergent thinking for more creative and better resolutions.


Learning questioning

Becoming an effective questioner takes time. Candidly, many employees use few interrogatives other than the most basic closed question. To learn neutral questioning, we suggest that you first gain facility in open questioning. Since the actual form is what you want to get comfortable with first, preplanning some potential questions can be very helpful. Furthermore, as you gain new insight you’ll begin to see what forms others are using—and why problem solving fails so often. As people learn the open and neutral formats, many have said that it feels odd or weird. They also recognize that the open question often forces loss of personal control—which can be initially very uncomfortable.


Once you’ve mastered open questioning, then you can move on to the subset—neutral questioning. Understanding the form is fairly easy, but learning to do it in the heat of conversation can be frustrating, making you feel dumb and vulnerable in the process.


However, as you become an artist in questioning, you’ll notice that you’ll get a lot more useful attention. This single tool can provide more opportunities, better salary and even a better job. As a consultant interviewing a number of referents for a client, on numerous occasions the interviewee would respond, “that’s a fascinating question.” In at least one out of every four times that happened, I got another consulting gig out of it. Effective questioning pays off not only in new relationships and opportunities, but also in big bucks ($$$).


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Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.

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