Share this content

How to ask the right questions

12th Mar 2010
Share this content

Communicating effectively with prospects, clients and colleagues relies on asking the right things in the right way, advises Alison Hartley.

If I had a pound for every time my children asked me ‘why?’, I’d be a millionaire. The question belies a curiosity and genuine desire for understanding but when it forces me to explain my sometimes beleaguered adult logic, I have to think differently.

In business most of us could do with getting better at asking questions in a childlike manner. Our research suggests that asking insightful questions is the number one business development skill in professional services. Why? Because, by doing it, you’re demonstrating respect to your clients by taking time to learn about their world. Many of us love the chance to talk about what is important to us, and if you give other people the chance, they will love you for it. What do you get from it? A deeper, richer understanding of your client and therefore, a deeper, richer understanding of how you might be able to help them in the future.

Integrity alert!
Asking great questions is extremely powerful, but only if it’s done with integrity. Questioning can be manipulative, and if the client feels this is the case, trust will be broken. Children ask questions because they genuinely want to know. Be childlike.

Good questioning skills are invaluable in many business environments - recruitment, appraisals, engaging with your team – the ability to ask great questions will help you be seen as an advanced communicator. In business development, if you do nothing else, ask great questions.

When you are networking – get over the fear of what to say, or how awkward you feel – by asking questions. When you meet potential clients, explore their world.

When you are offering potential solutions, check that you are on track. When you are executing the project, ask if it’s going well? When the project is finished, ask for feedback.

Having said that, questioning is a great skill - it is astonishing to see how few people really take time to hone their technique. This is particularly true of TV interviewers, who are so bad they make me cringe. If you want advice on how NOT to ask questions, watch most chat shows, sports interviews or news reports.

What do they do wrong?

  • Closed questions, which can be answered with a yes or no. If you get an uncooperative interviewee, that’s what they’ll answer. I vividly remember a BBC reporter interviewing Andre Agassi at Wimbledon, and he simply answered yes or no to her rambling, closed questions. Embarrassing for everyone. Some interviewees might give a little more, but it’s up to the questioner to ask better questions.
  • Leading questions – “do you think that…” “You must believe that…”
  • Multiple questions – there are so many parts to the question that only one will get answered.
  • “Show-off” questions – all about the interviewer trying to prove his or her knowledge of the subject.

The key to good, open, exploratory questions is the shorter the better and to start them with a W (what, where, when, why?) and the occasional H (how?).

The other thing to keep in mind is TED:

  • Tell me more about…
  • Explain…
  • Describe…

Throughout my life and career, I can think of some fantastic people who have helped me by asking great questions. Some have been managers or colleagues, who coached and mentored me. Some have been friends, who helped me through difficult times by asking questions and helping me move forward. Some have been potential suppliers who, through skilful questioning, helped me understand my organisation even better; who made me feel I had a potential trusted adviser who could help me address my challenges. They are memorable because they asked and listened.

Alison Hartley is a consultant at
PACE Partners International.


Replies (4)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

By jimeth
12th Mar 2010 12:17

Ask Questions and Listen to the Answers

Thanks Alison for a helpful reminder on this.  It is all too easy to start telling people things without finding out what questions they want answered.

Outside of work I help lead small groups on church Alpha courses.  Learning to ask open questions and then to follow up answers with further questions has helped get real discussion going. 

The most important thing having asked any question, in any context, is to really listen to the answer.  Your next comment or question needs to reflect the fact that you listened and took in what was said.  If you ask a series of questions (however open) but then plough on with further questions which take no notice of what the other person has said then you are not showing proper respect to the other person - and they will notice.

So the other important skill apart from asking questions is listening - the two have to go hand-in hand.

Thanks (0)
By DanFlak
12th Mar 2010 13:22

Spot on

I've taken a number of communications courses. One of them threw out a statistic: in 40% of disagreements, there is no difference of opinion, there is merely a difference of understanding. Occasionally when things seem to go off the track around the office, I have to pull back and think, "are we communicating?"

If communications doesn't solve the problem, at least it clarifies what you're fighting about and is more likely to lead to a mutually agreeable solution.

Thanks (0)
By Bob Harper
12th Mar 2010 18:20

Mind your language

I agree, questions are a key business development tool and accountants can also use them to enhance their service value.  But, this seemingly simple activity is actually quite a deep subject and tracking your clients language is vital. 

A question can (and should) be asked in different ways depending on the client.  This is part of the the Selling BUY Number sales system for accountants.  For example, one thing to keep in mind is that clients think and process information in different ways. 

Some people are more visual, others will be more inclined to use sound, perhaps with with self-talk, while some will use feelings more.  If you listen carefully, you will hear it in the client's language...does that ring a bell?  Do you see what I mean?  Can you get a handle on that?

Now, if you were asking a client about the plans for the business you could say:

Can you explian your vision for the business?Can you give a feel of what you want to acheieve?I'd like to hear about your plans, could you tell me what you have in mind?

When you get this right clients will say "he/she speaks my langauge" and that is a good thing.  But, the other side of the coin is that you could be using your style while your client is using another and that reduces your effectiveness as a communicator which reduces your impact as an advisor!

There are other really important things you can track as part of your client profiling through language.


Portfolio Marketing

Thanks (0)
By AlisonHartley
22nd Mar 2010 09:48

Ask the Right Questions

Thanks for these comments.  They all provide useful extensions to the article.  Absolutely, listening is the other side of the coin, and is absolutely critical to filling out the experience for the respondent.  Respect and trust can quickly be broken if the questioner doesn't actively listen and pick up on clues in any response given.  Picking up on the use of language - visual, auditory and so on, is also powerful.  However, in my experience, concentrating on the type of language used is the next level of sophistication in communication skills, and takes both an interest in doing it and considerable practice to really get to grips with it.   As an NLP Practitioner, I still have to concentrate on this.  PACE hear frequently that 'advisors don't listen', so as a first step, asking great questions then listening carefully is a useful first step. 

Thanks (0)