Active Listening Skills - Questioning Skills

The third component of active listening is the art of questioning.

Active Listening and Questioning Skills

Developing your ability to ask questions that draw out the information needed to aid your understanding of the speaker's situation and help them find a resolution is crucial to your success. Your questions help you to:

• Focus attention
• Elicit new ideas
• Encourage exploration
• Foster commitment

There are seven different types of questions you can ask, and you should make sure that you have a clear idea of why you are asking a question in a particular way and at a particular time.

Types of active listening questions

Open questions are commonly used to encourage the other party to open up, so that you can gather the necessary information. They often start with why, what, where, which, and how.

You will find that they work best when the conversation is already flowing freely. For example:

'How was that strategy useful?'
'What did you do to keep your team on track?'
'How would you respond to this customer's concerns?'

Probing questions can be used to clarify something that has already been said or to find out more detail about it. Many of them are helpful in creating rapport, but you must take care not over-use them as this can make people feel as if they are being interrogated or even attacked.

Make sure your verbal and nonverbal signs are neutral or supportive when asking such questions. This type of question is useful in uncovering details that may have initially been overlooked or thought irrelevant. For example:

'Why do you think this is the case?'
'What does that mean?'
'What are your options for solving the problem?'
'Could you be more specific?'
'Who is involved? Who are the key stakeholders?'
'What needs addressing?
'Is there an option that you have not yet considered?'
'How have you managed to put up with the situation to date?'
'How would an objective observer describe this situation?'
'What do you care most about in this situation?'
'What are your concerns?'

Closed questions require a 'yes' or 'no' answer. Such questions should be used sparingly because they tend to make any conversation feel awkward and one-sided, but in some instances an affirmative or negative answer is all that is needed. In sensitive situations, they are best avoided as they can harm the rapport and empathy that are an essential part of active listening.

Reflective questions are frequently used to check and clarify your understanding. This style of question reflects back to the speaker what they have just said and allows them to fully explore their knowledge of a situation.

These questions also provide an opportunity for the other person to give voice to the emotions they felt at that particular time without you having to interpret why this happened in your question. Use of reflective questions dispenses with you having to express an interpretation or judge why the other person felt this way.
For example:
Speaker - 'I feel frustrated with myself.'
Listener - 'And what is this "frustrated with myself" experience like?'

Speaker - 'Those people in dispatch are always messing me about.'
Listener - 'What does that "messing you about" behavior involve?'

Leading questions need to be used with care because they imply that there is a right answer to the question, which contradicts the ethos of active listening. They are useful in situations where you require a desired answer or need to influence people's thinking. For example:
'So wouldn't it have been better to…?'
'Don't you think we should have…?'

Hypothetical questions allow you to gauge how someone might act or what they think about a possible situation. They are effective in getting the person to think up and discuss new ideas or approaches to a problem. For example:
'What would you do if…?'
'What would happen if…?'

Paraphrasing questions are one of the best ways you can check your own understanding of what the speaker has said. For example:

Speaker - 'I can't deliver on that unless accounts get the information to me the same day.'
Listener - 'I'm hearing you say that you could deliver, if the accounts department were able to get the information to you on the same day you requested it. Am I understanding this correctly?'

Whenever you ask a question think about how and where you are trying to 'take' the speaker. If the question you ask does not result in a positive step forward then you must ask yourself three simple questions: 'Did I ask it in the wrong way?', 'Could the words I used be misinterpreted?' and 'Was the type of question appropriate?' The answers you get by asking yourself these things will enable you to develop your questioning competency and alter your behavior in the future.

You may also be interested in:
Active Listening Skills for Managers | Definition of Active Listening | Reflective Technique | Barriers to Active Listening | Advantages of Active Listening.

Key Points

  • Questions can help you to focus attention, elicit new ideas, encourage exploration, and foster commitment.
  • There are seven different types of question you can use: open, probing, closed, reflective, leading, hypothetical, and paraphrasing.
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