Whether you’re running a small team, a thriving practice or an entire chain, questioning is an easy and hugely effective way to get the most from your people.
Ask the right question at the right time and you control the conversation. Your point hits home, and best of all, you win over hearts and minds.
But get it wrong, and control is lost. Welcome to Chaos. Population, you.
The sad truth is, most leaders ignore the simple questioning techniques that can make life so much easier. They don’t know (or just plain forget) that there are different ways of asking – and the choice they make will influence the answer that comes back.
Now as a topic, this is big enough for a hefty book or three, so for now let’s stick to the main types of question:
Open Vs Closed
Quick digression: I had a job interview many years back that went a bit like this…
THEM: Do you know the difference between an open and closed question?
ME: Yes of course.
THEM: OK, so what is the difference?
ME: Well you’ve just shown me there. “Do you know the difference between an open and closed question?” is a closed question, because it only lets me answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. But “What is the difference?” is an open question, because it opens the floor to me and lets me expand in my own words.
I got scowled at for the rest of the interview, because let’s face it, no-one likes a smarty-pants. But you get the picture. Closed questions lead to one or two words, while open questions kickstart a two-way conversation.
And when you’re dealing with employee issues, both will have their uses.
The closed question is useful when you just want a short and factual answer. Plus, it’s a handy way to wrestle control from people who like to dominate conversations or drift off into tangents.
The open question is a great tool for showing trust and empathy. When you invite an unrestrained response, you’re showing your listening, caring side and telling your employee that their opinion matters.
So when it comes to employee relations, it’s good to start with open questions – then revert to closed questions if or when you need to regain control.
Let’s take a few examples.
“Are you feeling all right today?” Vs “How are you feeling today?”
The second question is asking the person to open up, so you can offer some help or just act as a sounding board. It’s a way of unearthing problems that might be difficult to discuss – so a real ally for you, employee-bonding wise.
“Are you happy with your appraisal grade?” V “How did you find your appraisal?”
Chances are, an employee who’s less than happy with their appraisal won’t tell you about it unless they feel that you genuinely want their feedback. So to them, the closed question feels like a token bit of concern. But the open question says you’re there and ready to listen. And when they get to air their thoughts, they’re more likely to take your ideas on board and accept the grading you’ve given.
“Did you enjoy the meeting?” Vs “What did you think of the meeting?”
Let’s be honest, the closed question feels like nothing more than passing the time of day! It’s the kind of glib remark you might make in a lift to cover up an embarrassing 30 seconds of silence. But the open question starts a dialogue, and usually brings some feedback. In turn, that’s your chance to reinforce a message or check that actions have been understood.
In each case, it’s the open question that gets the best response. And if the conversation drifts, you can always get back on task by asking a pointed or closed question like “Do you need anything from me now?”
So how do you phrase your question?
As a rule of thumb, open questions start with one of Kipling’s friends: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. But closed questions tend to start with verbs, as in “Did you find the report?” or “Can you answer the phone?”
And whichever type of question you choose, you’ll get a better response if you include some positive or supportive words. “What influenced that decision?” is less aggressive than “Why did you do that?”…it’s really the same question, but it sends out a radically different message.
Choose your questions wisely
Remember, both types of question have their place in employee relations. You just have to make the right choice, based on the kind of person you’re talking to and the situation you find yourselves in.
Just keep in mind that you’re in control, and use a careful mix of questions to steer the conversation in the right direction.
They’ll follow your lead, every time.