The Importance of Questions in Communication Skills
- Do you need to get someone talking?
- Are you interviewing someone for a job?
- Do you want to be thought of as a great conversationalist?
- Are you going to an interview and need to know what sort of questions you might be asked?
- Do you need to know how to get ready for interview questions?
- Do you need to be seen as a friendly, approachable person, socially?
- Are you trying to sell something?
If you have answered "yes" to any of the above, then you need to ask and answer questions, but not just any old questions. Some questions will close just about any conversation down so quickly, you won't know what hit you. Others will keep the person talking for hours if necessary, and some will only get the person to tell you what you want to hear—not necessarily the truth. And if you are the one being asked the questions, you need to know how to overcome the interviewer's totally woeful questions and show yourself as brilliant!
All the questions that started this article were "closed-ended" questions. They can be answered by the person saying just "yes" or "no", or perhaps "maybe" if they are truly undecided. Try them. Does the answer make sense if the person says just "yes" or "no"?
If you are an interviewer, trying to get someone to talk about themselves and their approach to a job, or you are a host trying to get a shy guest to join in a conversation, then you need to know the best kinds of questions to use to achieve your aims and closed-ended questions may not be the ones to use (though they can be at times).
These are similar to closed questions in that, while they cannot be answered with "yes" or "no", they can be answered with just a short phrase and don't lead to a longer explanation or conversation. Examples of these factual questions might be, "What's the weather like?" "What time is it?" "What colour is the paint?".
A "closed-ended" question is one that can be answered by "yes" or "no", or possibly "maybe". So what questions get the person talking? The opposite of "closed" is "open" and "open-ended" questions are ones that cannot be answered by "yes", "no" or "maybe". Open-ended questions will normally get a longer answer and often start with Rudyard Kipling's six honest serving men - Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.
So, if you want to get someone talking at an interview, you could start by asking them, "Why are you interested in this job?" This question cannot be answered by a yes or a no. The interviewee has to try to give you some kind of an answer. Now, this particular question is a tough one for lower paid jobs and I wouldn't recommend it unless you are interviewing for higher paid jobs, where the interviewee should be expecting this type of question. But the use of the 6 serving men type questions will serve you well if you are interviewing.
This includes for newspaper articles too. If you want to write a newspaper or magazine article on something, your article will have to answer these six questions in order to be published - What is it about? Why are you writing about this? Who is involved? When did it happen? How did it happen?
More Open-Ended Questions
Open-ended questions can also start with some other phrases, such as, "Tell me about...", "Give me an example of...". So if you are the host at a party or an organiser at a gathering and are trying to get a guest into a conversation, you could open with a really safe opener such as "What was your journey here like?" or if you know them, you could start straight in with something like, "How is the family doing?". If you continue with open questions (providing it doesn't turn into an interrogation) you can get most people into a conversation that flows.
Leading questions are a form of a closed-ended question that is used to try and "lead" the person into agreeing with you or following your thoughts on a particular subject. They are forbidden in courts of law! A leading question would be something like "Don't you agree?" "Surely, you don't mean to tell me that ...?". These questions can be answered with a yes or no, just like all closed questions but they generally end up with the recipient trying to guess what you want them to say and then follow your lead. That is not a conversation, nor is it a useful way of conducting an interview, unless you're trying to get a suspect to admit to a crime.
Many interviews these days are what is called "competence based." The jobs are seen as sets of competencies, that is they are advertised as needing people with certain skills, such as driving, word processing, training experience, proof-reading skills, spreadsheet experience, management skills, etc. The job description will contain a set of the skills or experience (the competencies) that you need to have and the interview should concentrate mainly on these.
The types of questions that will be asked should be "open" questions and are going to be mainly of the kind that start, "Give me an example of a time when you had to ...." or "Tell me when you had to...". So, if you were being interviewed for a job in an accounts section but had no qualifications in accountancy, you might be asked a question such as "Give me an example of a time when you had to look after other people's money and account for it." This would give you the opportunity to talk about, for example, the time when you were the treasurer of a local club and you changed the finances from a loss to being in a profit situation.
As an interviewee, you can prepare for these types of interviews by asking yourself the question, "Give me an example of a time when you ..." for each of the stated competencies. Even if the interviewer asks the question in a different format, you will still be prepared with your examples.
If you are the interviewer, you need to find different ways of saying "Give me an example of a time when...". These could include, "Tell me about...", "Describe a situation where you had to..." , etc.
Handling Behavioural Questions (Competence Based Questions) Using the STAR formula
Funnelling an Interview
As an interviewer, you may find open questions a bit difficult, in that the interviewee may lead the "conversation" down an unexpected path. For instance you might ask the question, "Where do you see yourself in 5 years' time?", expecting the interviewee to describe the career path they hope to take. Instead, they talk about how they intend to aim high for your job. It can be easier to get the person talking about the area you are interested in by using closed or factual questions at the start of each area you want to discuss, then using open questions to open out the conversation.
The interviewer might have been better starting out by asking a closed question such as "Do you have a particular career path you want to follow?". The interviewee could have answered "yes" or "no". The "better" candidate might well interpret the question as a starter for them to add an additional answer such as "yes, I have always wanted to work in a finance office, where I can use my ability with numbers". It is then much easier for the interviewer to use a supplementary question such as, "So where do you think this career path will lead you to in 5 years' time?"
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 DreamerMeg