Oral Communication: The Art of Asking Questions






Managers and supervisors have the assumption that for effective running of the organisation there is a need for talking and questioning. Yet experience has shown that this is only an illusion. It can often lead to needless misunderstandings, conflicts and waste.

There are two reasons for it:


  1. How Bosses See Themselves

Managers tend to take mutual understanding for granted. They are not aware that often the thoughts they express and directives they give are not understood by subordinates precisely in the way they were intended.

  1. A Communication Gap

This situation is further aggravated when subordinates are not encouraged to ask questions, or to explain their problems fully.



One way in which managers can enhance their ability to diagnose the above pitfalls is by asking relevant questions. But the basic need for questions is that there should be a climate of confidence and that cannot be created instantaneously. How a question is asked is often more important  than what is asked cause one way can raise the subordinates boiling point or the other asked in a tone that is encouraging and results in better understanding. When the voice is loaded with emotion or when it reflects lack of confidence and even distrust, even the most skillfully worded questions will fall on barren ground. A sparkle in the eyes or a smile of appreciation on the face can help insure the best reception to the question. The physical conduct of the questioner plays an important part too.


Effective Questions

  • Open or direct questions apply the old standbys of who, what, when, where and how. They invite the subordinate to express openly what he feels or thinks. Implied in these questions is respect for his ability to solve problems. Examples: ”How do you think we ought to handle this problem?” “What was your approach in solving this problem?”.
  • Leading questions give a non-restrictive direction to the reply. Example: “How did you finally overcome the hitch to the problem?”.
  • Planned or planted answer question invites the subordinate to give his opinion, even though there are implied meanings that either the supervisor thinks the problem could be effectively tackled or is willing to receive criticism or contradictory ideas. Examples: “How about using this approach?”.
  • Unemotional question appeal to reason and evoke little or no feelings. Example: “Any other thoughts about this problem?”
  • Invitation to participate question let the subordinate know that he can make a real contribution by expressing his views. Example: “You could be of real help in this. What are your suggestions?”.
  • Off-the-hook questions allows the subordinate to decline a request without losing face. Example: “We have a serious over-run on this project. I don’t suppose you and your men would want to put in two or three extra hours tonight and tomorrow night?”.
  • Invitation to comply question entails an order with the sting taken out of it by the tagline “Okay?” or “right?” Example: “I know it is a lot of work, but we have to get it out by this evening. Okay?”.
  • Invitation to feedback question enables the supervisor to check on the subordinate’s understanding of a task. Example: “Is it understood that you’ll check back with me with a complete report of your findings?”.
  • Opening the feelings question invites the subordinate to reveal his true feelings. Examples: “I understand you didn’t go along with the decision. What is your concern about this- what is bothering you?”.
  • Bringing about bashful ideas questions asked for elaboration. Example: “How might we do that”.

Ineffective Questions

  • Squelcher question which completely suppress the subordinates degree of disagreement to any point of view. Example: “ Now if you were convinced that this approach is unfeasible, you wouldn’t go along with it, would you?”.
  • Dead-end questions drive the subordinate into a corner no matter what his answer may be. Example: “What made you think that the course of action you took was the only right one?”.
  • Emotionally heated questions evoke negative feelings in the subordinate. Example: “We’ve already tried this several times, so why do you insist on coming back with something that obviously won’t work?”.
  • Impulse questions that just happen to occur to the supervisor. Example: “By the way, what do you think about the way Farrukh interrupted you at this morning’s meeting?”.
  • Trick question which appears to ask a frank opinion, but that actually leaves little choice for the subordinate to come up with his own solution. Example: “What should we do about Bilal? Fire him or just transfer him out of your department?”.
  • Mirror question that simply invites compliance. Example: “Here’s the way I’m going to accomplish this. Do you agree?”.
  • Kill the idea question which limits any consideration of developing the idea further. Example: “This is an excellent idea but I think we should try this approach instead. Don’t you agree?”.


Two Key ‘Don’ts’

  1. Don’t settle for the primary question you ask. Always try to comeback with a secondary question that shows a better response.
  2. Don’t slam the door of communication by agreeing or disagreeing flatly with the response given. Try keeping the door open by giving noncommittal reinforcements like “I see” “Oh yes” and “I see what you mean”.





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