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How to Ask the Right Questions

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Posted 18 August 2014 by Chris FarmerChris Farmer

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You may find the following will help with your Listening Skills skills training.

How to ask the right questions

Communication skills training includes how to ask the right questions.

In any conversation, there is always the danger of some misinterpretation of the meaning of the message. The causes of the misinterpretation are many and each cause can be averted by asking the right question.

Here are four of the causes of misinterpretation and the four corresponding corrective questions.

1. Language is not precise

For many words and phrases there are many possible interpretations. It is often the case that, when speaking, the speaker has in mind one particular meaning, whilst the listener, when hearing the same message, thinks of a different meaning.

For example, if John says to Steve, "Please come to the dinner party, Steve. But please make sure you are appropriately dressed": then the phrase "appropriately dressed" may have two very different connotations: one connotation in Johns mind, and a radically different connotation in Steve mind.

So later, when Steve turns up at the dinner party in his faded blue jeans and a denim shirt and with no tie, John, who is in his full tuxedo, is not impressed.

Language is not precise

Therefore, there is one question that needs to be ever-ready to spring from your lips:

"When you say BLANK, what do you mean? Can you be more specific?"

Here is another example:
If the other says, "I was forced to take the job position, which I didn't really like."
You may interject and ask, "When you say, "forced to take the job", what do you mean by forced? Can you be more specific?
John says, "They offered me such a great salary, I felt I couldn't say no".
You think to yourself, "Well then, you weren't forced to do it. You chose to accept a good offer. That is not really being forced to do it."
Remember this good question and be ready to use it often:

"When you say BLANK, what do you mean? Can you be more specific?"

2. Listening is not precise

Precise Listening requires full focused attention. And the truth is that your attention can sometimes wander off. The other person is speaking and you temporarily, drift off mentally.

It maybe only momentary, and nobody else notices, but when you come back to full awareness you realise that you have lost the thread of his meaning. So here is a question that I want to suggest that you use more often than you do now:

"Would you please repeat that? I didn't quite get the last thing you said."

Don't be afraid to ask the speaker to repeat himself, or herself

Most speakers are very happy to hear themselves talking and so they will happily repeat their point. But please make sure that you do pay attention the second time around.
Remember this good question and be ready to use it:
"Would you please repeat that? I didn't quite get the last thing you said."

3. People often talk in negation

Talking in negation is the act of talking about:

  • What you don't like.
  • What you would not do.
  • What you oppose.
  • What you think is wrong.
  • What you are NOT going to do and why you're NOT going to do it.

On the other hand, "Talking in the affirmative" is talking about:

  • What you DO like.
  • What you would LIKE to do.
  • What you support and endorse.
  • What you think is right.
  • What you are going to do and HOW you are going to do it.

Whenever you hear the other person spending too much time talking about what he thinks is wrong, what he hates, what he would oppose, do not ask him "WHY?" Instead, ask him for his affirmative view: if he has one, (he may not have any affirmative views.).

If he says, "I don't like it", then ask him, "What do you like?"
If he says, "I don't trust her", then ask him, "Who do you trust?"
If he says, "I would never do it that way." Then ask him, "What way would you do it?"
If he says, "I can't see that way of doing it will work". Then you say, "What way would work?"
If he says, "I am against the use of fossil fuels," then you say, "What is your practical alternative?"
The key point to remember here is to notice negation language and ask for the affirmative.

In this respect, there are two great questions to memorise and use:

  1. "If not, Blank, then what?"And
  2. "What is your practical alternative?" (Emphasis the word "practical".)

4. Many statements are arbitrary

Many statements that people make have little or no evidence to back them up. They are presented to you as facts, when they are more akin to opinions.
For example, the speaker says, "Since there is a concerted attempt by foreign powers to undermine our western culture, then we must not allow too many foreigners in".

The question you should ask here is, "How do you know?"
This simple question is a wonderful question that often reveals the statement for what it: is an opinion. Not a fact.

If the other says, "God is on our side!"
You might ask, "How do you know?"

If the other says, "David Cameron only cares about the wealthy and he does not care about the needs of the working classes." Ask, "How do you know?."
If the other guy says, "Twenty years from now, there won't be enough room to move in this country." You could ask, "How do you know?"
It may be the other person does have knowledge and can back up his claim. And if he can, then you will learn something.
But if he cannot back up his claim with at least some evidence to support it, then you learn something else. Which is that the persons claim is arbitrary.
And arbitrary claims unsupported by any evidence are of practically no value.
SO remember to use this question.
"How do you know?"

Summary of good questions to ask:

  1. Since language is not precise, ask: "When you say BLANK, what do you mean? Can you be more specific?"
  2. Listening is not precise. "Would you please repeat that? I didn't quite get the last thing you said."
  3. Since people often talk in negation, ask; "What is your practical alternative?" (Emphasis the word "practical".)
  4. Since many statements are arbitrary, ask, "How do you know?"

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