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A question of questions ~ Question technique for managers

question technique

Mastering the art of question technique

On a recent Managing Performance Workshop one of the skills we discussed that cropped up time and again was question technique.

As any self-respecting salesperson will tell you, question technique is a key skill in the sales process.

But it’s also a critical skill for managers too.


Because by asking good questions you can:

  • Check understanding
  • Create buy-in
  • Get people’s involvement
  • Discover the root cause of a problem
  • Understand someone else’s perspective
  • Find out what’s going on
  • Find out how your team are feeling
  • Learn from your mistakes
  • Help others learn from their own mistakes
  • Help put people at ease
  • Find out what’s important to others
  • Identify people’s expectations
  • Seek ideas for resolving problems
  • Check on people’s progress
  • Help people identify their own strengths
  • Help people identify their development needs
  • Encourage people to think things through for themselves
  • Encourage people to take responsibly
  • Help people open up to where they need help or support
  • Keep difficult conversations on track
  • Help people plan and prioritise
  • Get to know your team better
  • Build rapport

I could go on, but you get the idea…

On my workshop the emphasis was on asking questions in relation to managing performance, but the ability to ask good questions is also important in recruitment, in meeting customers’ expectations, in dealing with complaints, in coaching, so it’s a skill well worth developing.

Of course, the way you ask questions is also important; we don’t want team members (or customers) to feel like they are being interrogated.

Questions to open up the conversation

To get people talking use ‘open’ questions, starting with the words:

What, how, when, who, where, why, give me an example, or tell me about…..

This will encourage the team member to go into details and not answer yes/no.

However, “why?” is a question to use with caution; it can easily come across as judgemental if we’re not careful. Also asking someone why something happened can be too broad a question which they may not know the answer to. So, as an example, instead of asking “why did you do that?” ask questions along the lines of “what triggered your response?” or “what was your reasoning for approaching it in that way?”, “what had you hoped to achieve?”, “How did you decide?

In the context of managing performance, e.g. in a one to one review, here are some questions to ask:

  • General: What did you do, how did you do that, what results did you get, how has that helped you, what’s was the impact on the customer/team/department.
  • If something worked out well: what did you do differently this time, what was the end result, how did that help others (business, colleagues, customer, etc), how will you build on this for next time.
  • If it didn’t go well: how did you overcame the problem, how did that work, what have you learnt from this, what can you do/can we do to avoid it happening again, what will you do in future, what help do you need from me?
  • If they’ve had a challenge: what do you think led to that, what have you done about it, what have you learnt, what support do you need from me?
  • When planning forward: what will you focus on, how will that help you or others, what will you do first, when will you start, how will you know when it’s working, what milestones will there be, what obstacles could get in the way, how will you overcome these, when shall we review progress?

Listening to answers

Whilst mastering your question technique you’ll also need to listen well.

  • Build rapport by looking and showing you are listening, by maintaining eye contact, nodding and using open gestures.
  • Avoid taking notes while they are talking.  If you need to keep a record of the conversation, you don’t need to document everything, just key points, so wait until they have finished, then make a note of the relevant key points or anything you want to come back to later.
  • Watch for any hesitancy in their answers. If you’ve asked a tough question they may need time to think about it, so avoid jumping in before they’ve had a chance to do so.
  • Avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions – if they don’t give you all the evidence you are looking for, or their answers don’t give you enough detail, follow up with more questions.
  • Listen to what’s not been said too.
  • Stem the flow of irrelevancies or hobby horses by interruptions like “I understand your point.” or “I can imagine”…. “So what can you do…?”
  • Summarise their points (using their words) to show your understanding.
  • Don’t be tempted to stick to pre-formulated questions; build the next question round the answer to the last.

Because we all filter or delete information, it can mean the information we receive or questions we ask very general or vague, making it difficult for others to fully understand the question, issue or action required. Often it is necessary to drill down to get specifics.

This can be the case when reviewing performance with team members. We might ask a question about a situation and they may be vague or ambiguous with their answers. We interpret their response in one way (and often make assumptions about the detail) when they mean something else. Or maybe they are being vague deliberately, as they don’t have any details to give!

For example: you ask someone how they are getting on with a task you have asked them to complete by the end of the week. When you ask them on Wednesday how they are getting on they answer “Fine”. What does that mean? Does it mean they’ve nearly finished; that they are just half way though; that they have started it but waiting for some information from someone else; that they are stuck, but too shy to ask for help; or they haven’t even started yet?

This is when we may need to do some “Fluff Busting” and I’ve written about that here.

Take action and practise your question technique

If you only do one thing:

Next time you ask one of your team for an update ask specific questions so you come away knowing exactly where they are up to.

video: Understand your customers and team by asking quality questions..

Fluff Busting

complaint handling tipsA useful complaint handling technique

Do you ever find yourself having conversations with a customer (particularly when complaint handling) or team members and then they say to you at a later date, ” No, that’s not really what I meant!” and you realise that you have completely misunderstood them?

Or they misunderstand you; you’ve made a comment that’s been mis-interpreted?

How does this happen?

Because we all filter or delete information it can mean the information we share or receive, or questions we ask can be very general or vague, making it difficult for others to fully understand the question, issue or action required.

We are all inclined to generalise, exaggerate or distort situations by the language we use, and this can easily take us off track when we are communicating with others.

In order to overcome this, we often need to drill down to get specifics; to recognise the ‘fluff’ in our communications and learn the art of clarification or ‘ fluff busting’.

Fluff busting can help in three ways:

  1. To help us to say what we mean as precisely as possible
  2. To help us to understand as clearly as possible what other people mean
  3. To help other people to understand exactly what they really do mean

This is particularly important at times when wires can get crossed – such as in complaint handling situations. Here’s an earlier post on dealing with customer complaints.

Here are the four main areas of ‘fluff’ and ambiguity, and how to overcome them.

Generalisations, exaggerations and distortions

These include words like always, never, everyone, nobody. For example: “This happens every time!” Or, ’’Everyone is always so unhelpful’.

You want to challenge with respect and probe/explore their sweeping statements.

The ideal response to this type of statement on paper might be ‘Really? Everyone? Always?’ but when handling complaints it can seem sarcastic or patronising if we’re not careful, so better to ask for some examples and gather the facts.

Abstract nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs

These are the words which are often used to describe the type of service or response the customer is looking for, for example quick, quality, good fun, luxury, value for money. The problem with these types of words is that they mean different things to different people. What might be luxury to you may be very different for the customer; one person’s idea of value for money may be very different from somebody else’s.

So, check for clarity – what do you mean by that?

Respond to these types of words by asking for examples of what constitutes good fun, value for money, etc, or ask what criteria they would use to define these things.

Another example might include throwaway comments such as ‘Your receptionist was really unhelpful.’  So again, check what they mean by this or ask, ‘How specifically was he/she unhelpful?’

With your team members, asking for help or giving explanations why they are doing/non doing what you need  saying for example, ‘I don’t feel confident to do that’, what is they are unsure of? If you ask them how they are getting on with a task or project and they respond ‘fine’, does that mean it’s all on schedule or is ‘fine’ just a cover up, when in fact they are struggling with it or not even started?


These are the words that we would use to compare one thing and another for example quicker, faster, cheaper, better, best, bigger, smaller.

In order to be useful, we need to know what things are being compared to and any measurement involved.

To put this into context an example might be ‘I’d hoped for something cheaper than that’, your response might be ‘What is your budget?’ Or your customer asks “Do you have anything bigger?” You need to identify how much bigger? Are they looking for something 10% bigger, twice the size or 10 times the size?!

Rules & Blocks

Rules are often self-imposed and may be determined by past experience, or our own sense of values.  These include statements like “I couldn’t possibly agree to that.’ Or “I must get this sorted today.”  What you want to do is to identify where the pressure or barrier is coming from, so use questions such as ‘What is preventing you?’ or ‘What would happen if you did/didn’t?’ these replies open up possibilities in the other person’s mind and can create a new awareness.

For example, you ask a team member to carry out a task and they reply ‘I can’t do that”. This could be for any number of reasons: Is this because they don’t know how to? In which case is it because they haven’t been shown, or they simply believe they won’t do it well due to their lack of confidence. They may believe they can’t do it due to lack of authority or access to the tools or resources to do it. Or they may simply say they can’t as they don’t have time. Each situation needs a different approach in the way you handle it.

A word of caution

This degree of precision would not be appropriate in every situation, so only use it when it is important to really understand other’s meaning. Remember the importance of maintaining rapport when you are using this technique; it is not to make people feel they are under interrogation.

This is one reason why you should try to avoid using the question ‘ why?‘ When people hear that question they often react on the defensive and looking for excuses or justifications. Each of the above examples work better by using what we call ‘ softeners’ where you start the question with expressions such as ‘ I’m wondering what…….’

So remember to cut through the fluff when you are:

  1. Asking for help or giving instructions
  2. Identifying customer needs and expectations
  3. Handling objections or responding to customer complaints
  4. Faced with objections, vague comments or excuses from team members

to ensure you are really clear on what you mean and you fully understand what other people mean.

Related videos and posts:

Complaint handling considerations for your team

Complaint Handling video