The Art of Asking Questions

The Art of Asking Questions

It’s important for technical writers to develop the ability to ask questions skillfully, especially if the work with people from different cultures. People in other cultures have different ideas about how to ask questions. What may seem acceptable to you may seem offensive or overly intrusive to people in other cultures. If you’re not culturally sensitive, communication may break down.

To learn how to ask good questions, let’s review the basics:

There are two kinds of questions—open-ended and closed-ended. People can’t answer open-ended questions with “Yes” or “No.” Open-ended questions open up dialogue because you probably don’t know the answer before you ask the question. As a rule, open-ended questions begin with the words “Why,” “Could,” “What,” or “How.”

Before we go further, let’s look at “Why” questions in more depth. “Why” is a challenging word. It implies that you’ve made a judgment. “Why” questions top the list of the types of questions that make people feel uncomfortable. If possible, ask “Why” questions only in relation to unemotional subjects, such as, “Why does the computer make that funny noise?” Avoid using “Why” questions about personal subjects, as in, “Why did you do that?” If you must ask a “Why” question, soften its impact by expressing acceptance before you ask the question. For example, you could say, “It’s obvious that you really worked hard to make this interface easy for the user to understand. I don’t understand one thing, though. Why didn’t you make the background green instead of blue?”

At the other end of the spectrum, “Could” is an extremely useful question-opener. “Could” can preface either open-ended or closed-ended questions. “Could” gives the person you’re interviewing a sense of control. For example, if you ask a subject matter expert, “Could you walk me through the process step-by-step?” she can answer, “No. We don’t have time right now,” without feeling guilty about denying your request. If she has the time, her response may be, “Certainly. I would be pleased to do so.” Whenever you ask questions in such a way that the other person can say “No” without feeling guilty, you strengthen your bond with that person.

Here are some tips about how to start questions to get the results you want:

  • If you want someone to talk about reasons, start your question with “Why,” as in “Why did you do it that way?” (As discussed above, be very careful with this type of question!)
  • If you want people to give you the facts, start your question with “What.”  (“What happens next?” or “What do you do next?”)
  • If you want people to talk about processes or sequences, start your question with “How.” (“How does this work with the existing system?”)

Closed-ended questions are also useful when you’re interviewing someone. These questions can have yes-or-no answers. You would use closed-ended questions to verify information, gain a commitment, or open up a conversation with someone who’s uncomfortable. Closed-ended questions often begin with “Is,” “Are,” or “Do.” Some examples are questions such as, “Is this the way to do this?” or, “Are all of the components in the box?” or, “Do you know how to configure this?”
Characteristics of closed-ended questions

If you’ve never interviewed a person before or if you sense that a person is uncomfortable, start your interview with a simple yes-or-no question. This makes the other person feel in control and more confident. It also builds rapport and sends a message that you aren’t going to be challenging. A simple closed-ended question, such as “Are you ready to start our interview?” can work wonders with a nervous or reluctant subject matter expert.

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