Asking questions is a simple skill mastered by few to the detriment of many. Asking the wrong questions can result in a sale being lost, an employee being misguided, a manager not being listened to and projects poorly planned.

It is not as simple as ?asking open questions? as some consultants would have it. To get the maximum out of asking questions, we need to ask the right open question or in some cases the right closed question.

It is true that asking open questions to find out facts is much faster than asking closed questions. If you are not convinced then try this out with your colleagues. Have one of them find out what movie you last went to, who you went with, how you got there, where it was screened, when you went and why you went. Have them ask questions which can only be answered ?yes? or ?no?.

In my training sessions it takes from twenty to fifty questions to find out the answer and many times the answer as to why the person went to the movies is never answered.

Try the same process again, changing the topic to your last time away on holiday. Ask them to find out what you did, where you did it, how you got there, when you went, who you went with and why you went where you went. Have the questioner ask only open questions. That is, questions which are difficult to answer with a ?yes? or ?no?. Typically such questions start with ?What?,?How?, “Where?, “When?, Who? and ?Why?. In this exercise ask them to not use any ?Why? questions but see if they can still find the answer.

In all the training sessions I have run the maximum number of questions to find out all the information including the answer to ?why? has been nine questions.

Open questions force people to open up. The answers to open questions give valuable hints to what questions to follow up with and in many cases a period of silence by the questioner will elicit further response.

The use of open questions is a key business skill that few people practise. They tend to ask questions starting with phrases like ?was it? or did it? and are left with a classic ?yes? or ?no? response. In sales, this lack of skill costs money. Generally people buy goods based on trust and value. Trust is created by brands and by the level of engagement between the sales person and customer. Value is created by matching or exceeding the needs of the customer for an acceptable price. It is very difficult to engage customers and to understand their needs by asking only closed questions.

Skill is required in asking the right open questions in the right circumstance. For instance, in a counselling session ?What? questions are the least threatening as they seek understanding about behaviour and the environment, eg ?What were the circumstances??, ?What did you think??, ?What can we do about it?? How questions are slightly more threatening as they seek understanding about actions and capabilities eg ?How did it happen?? Care must be taken with the use of ?Why? questions as they seek to understand a person’s values and start to pry at their identity. Asking ?Why did you do it?? as the first question is likely to provoke a negative response.

Planning a counselling session to ask the what questions first, followed by the how questions and then the why questions, if necessary, gets much better results than an unplanned mix of open and closed questions.

Asking closed questions is not only OK in some circumstances but actually preferred to open questions. For instance, when closing a sale, asking ?would you like that delivered tomorrow? will elicit either a yes response or an objection to the sale which the sales person can use to further understand the customers needs. Asking an open question is less likely to draw the objection.

A logical flow exists that is very useful in extracting information across a range of environments including sales, counselling, understanding the scope of a project or understanding your boss’s vision for the company.

First ask broad open questions eg ?What are you interested in?? Second, asked narrow open questions eg ?What do you intend to use it for?? Third, ask broad closed questions eg ?Would you prefer delivery on Thursday of Friday?? Fourth, use narrow closed questions eg ?Will that be by credit card??

Questioning skills is an underdeveloped business skill that is at the root of many instances of poor communication and poor performance. Because people do not know how to question, they misunderstand. Because they misunderstand they take actions that are not what is required. An investment in developing good questioning skills will improve productivity and create better sales opportunities.