Questioning is a crucial skill for gathering information, learning, evaluating, and persuading. Asking the right questions in the right way can yield valuable insights and lead to better decisions and outcomes. There are several types of questioning techniques that are commonly used for different purposes. This article will examine the three most common and effective questioning methods: open questions, probing questions, and closed questions. Mastering these three techniques can improve one’s ability to think critically, solve problems, assess situations, and communicate more effectively overall.
What are open questions?
Open questions are broad, open-ended inquiries that require more than a simple “yes” or “no” answer. They begin with words like “what,” “how,” “why,” “describe,” and “explain” to encourage the respondent to provide more details and elaboration. For example:
- What are some challenges you have faced in this role?
- How do you feel about the company’s new policy?
- Why do you think the project failed?
Open questions have many advantages:
- They gather more in-depth information and insight.
- They give the respondent a chance to fully explain their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
- They allow the questioner to better understand different perspectives.
- They help build rapport by showing interest in the respondent’s point of view.
Open questions are extremely versatile and can be used in many contexts, from research interviews to performance reviews. They are especially helpful at the start of a conversation to collect background information. Open questions form the foundation of effective questioning techniques.
Examples of Effective Open Questions
Here are some examples of effective open questions for different situations:
Customer research interview:
- What features do you look for when purchasing this type of product?
- How do you decide which brand to buy when selecting this product?
- Describe your overall experience using this type of product.
- What accomplishments are you most proud of from the past year?
- In what areas do you feel you have grown and improved?
- What challenges have you faced in meeting your goals and how have you addressed them?
- What factors may be contributing to this problem?
- How have you tried solving this issue so far?
- What resources might help resolve this situation?
What are probing questions?
Probing questions are follow-up questions used to clarify or expand on a response. After asking an initial open question, probing questions can help gather additional useful details from the respondent. Common probing tactics include:
- Asking for elaboration: “Can you provide more details about that?”
- Seeking examples: “Do you have any specific examples you can share?”
- Requesting descriptions: “What did that experience look and feel like?”
- Exploring motives: “What factors influenced that decision?”
- Discovering meaning: “What does that mean to you?”
Probing questions help you hone in on the most salient points and encourage the respondent to expand on their initial response. This provides richer, more descriptive information to analyze. Probing questions demonstrate active listening, interest, and commitment to fully understanding the respondent’s perspective.
Examples of Effective Probing Questions
Here are some examples of good probing follow-up questions:
Initial open question: What challenges have you faced in this role?
- What makes those aspects challenging for you?
- Can you think of any specific examples or instances of that challenge?
- How often does this issue occur?
- In what ways does this challenge affect your ability to meet goals?
Initial open question: How do you feel about the new policy?
- What concerns do you have about the new policy?
- Can you describe your experience so far with the policy change?
- What aspects of the policy do you think work well?
- Are there any parts you feel need improvement?
Initial open question: What did you think of the customer service overall?
- In what ways did they meet or fall short of your expectations?
- How did the customer service experience make you feel?
- Were there any stand out positives or negatives?
- How could they improve their service approach in the future?
The most effective probing questions stay laser-focused on the initial subject and avoid changing the topic or introducing new concepts. Probing too much can also irritate the respondent. Use these follow-up questions judiciously to clarify critical points without badgering.
What are closed questions?
Closed questions narrow the response possibilities to a fixed set of options, often requiring a simple one-word answer. They begin with verbs like “do,” “have,” “is,” “are,” or “were.” Closed questions can provide specific facts and details and help control the direction of a conversation. For example:
- Do you have any previous experience in this field?
- Were you satisfied with the customer service?
- Is this the first time you’ve had this problem?
Closed questions have some key advantages:
- They gather precise, focused information.
- They confirm facts quickly by eliminating guesswork.
- They keep conversations on-topic and structured.
- They help identify gaps that may require open and probing follow-up questions.
Closed questions work well near the end of a conversation to summarize key points and establish mutual understanding. They provide clear reference points for future problem-solving and decision-making. However, relying exclusively on closed questions can limit the discovery of unexpected insights and restrict deeper exploration of issues.
Examples of Effective Closed Questions
Here are some examples of concise, purposeful closed questions:
Customer satisfaction survey:
- Were you satisfied with the processing time for your order?
- Did you experience any issues with delayed or inaccurate delivery?
- Would you recommend our service to friends and family?
- Do you have experience using social media advertising tools?
- Are you comfortable meeting tight project deadlines?
- Were you responsible for leading teams in your last position?
- Has this issue impacted your daily routine?
- Are other people in your community affected by this problem?
- Did you attempt to resolve this on your own before contacting us for assistance?
Closed questions work best when precise, factual responses are needed to confirm data points, summarize conclusions, or direct the next steps in a conversation. They should be combined with open and probing questions to create a balanced discovery process.
How to Combine Open, Probing, and Closed Questions
Each questioning technique serves a different purpose. Learning how to fluidly combine open, probing, and closed questions allows you to conduct more effective, structured conversations that yield the deepest insights and most useful information. Here are some tips:
- Use open questions to initiate discussion and gather background details. Start broad to collect general themes and perspectives.
- Ask probing questions to clarify responses, request examples, and uncover more in-depth information.
- Use closed questions to confirm specifics, summarize key points, and transition between topics.
- Begin and end with open questions. The start establishes open communication while the end consolidates understanding.
- Sprinkle probing and closed questions throughout to steer conversation and focus on critical details.
- Adapt your questioning approach based on the respondent’s personality and engagement. Probe deeper with eager participants or pull back with reluctant ones.
- Ask follow-up questions immediately rather than saving them all until the end.
- Listen carefully to identify opportunities for additional probing based on interesting responses.
The right mix of questioning approaches makes conversations more natural, engaging, productive, and insightful.
Example Conversation Combining All Three Question Types
Here is an example dialogue using open, probing, and closed questions together:
Interviewer: Let’s begin discussing your background. What originally got you interested in this field? (Open)
Respondent: I’ve always loved technology and problem-solving. One class in college really sparked my passion for product design, so I decided to major in that field and pursue it as a career.
Interviewer: What did you enjoy about your college product design course? (Probing)
Respondent: I liked the hands-on approach – we got to ideate, prototype, test, and iterate on solutions. I also appreciated the focus on empathizing with user needs when defining the problem. The professor really pushed creative, human-centered design thinking.
Interviewer: Have you pursued any additional training in design since college? (Closed)
Respondent: Yes, I completed a UX design bootcamp last year to expand my skills.
Interviewer: How was your experience with the bootcamp? What key things did you take away? (Open)
Respondent: Overall it was a very positive experience…(continues describing learning outcomes and projects).
Interviewer: As we transition to discussing your past roles, what positions have you held that allowed you to utilize your design training? (Open)
The interviewer uses open questions to initiate new topics, probing questions to clarify details, and closed questions to confirm facts and transition between subject areas. This combination elicits comprehensive background and keeps the conversation strategic.
Open, probing, and closed questions each serve distinct purposes in extracting complete, meaningful information from a conversation. Open questions provide an entry point and encourage free sharing of experiences, opinions, and perspectives. Probing questions request elaboration on key points of interest to gather richer descriptions and insights. Closed questions confirm details, summarize, and steer the dialogue. Combining all three types of questions skillfully allows you to conduct more strategic, productive conversations and master the art of asking the right questions in the right way. With practice, you can adapt your questioning approach to different people and situations to unlock deeper information and understanding.
|Question Type||Purpose||Example Key Words|
|Open||Initiate discussion, gather background details||What, how, why, describe, explain|
|Probing||Clarify, expand on initial response||Elaborate, provide examples, describe|
|Closed||Confirm facts, summarize, transition topics||Do, have, is, are, were|