Questions are an essential part of communicating effectively, yet few of us are given any training in the structure and use of questions. Well-formed questions, however, are those which are intentionally designed to generate constructive and useful responses (or well-formed outcomes).
Questions have been called ‘keys’; use the right ones and you will unlock understanding as well as information. Well-formed questions are constructed with care to carry a conversation forward. They can build rapport as well as understanding.
Equally though, if you fall back on careless or ill-thought-out questions you can shut a conversation down or take it in an unwanted direction. Unfortunately, many of the questions we routinely ask through habit are in this category.
Here are a few guidelines for creating and using well-formed questions:
- Understand the purpose of your question; e.g. seeking information, general enquiry; ice-breaking and relationship-building; research; to encourage reflection; interrogation… etc.
- Avoid using questions as an admonishment, as in “Why did you do that?”; “What’s the matter with you?”
- Avoid closed questions which can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” (closed questions)
- Well-formed questions are open questions; they require more thought and more than a one-word answer (open questions are ones which trigger thought to formulate a response).
- Avoid using “Why” questions, as it tends to elicit speculative and subjective responses and therefore less useful information (unless you are specifically wanting their opinion or guesses).
- Steer clear of jargon or business-speak (E.g. “So when will we have all our ducks in a row”)
- Begin questions with what, where, how, where, when. These will encourage more open questions and more objective responses
- Think about your questions and use them purposefully, one at a time (don’t string several questions together in a sentence)
- Wait for answers and be comfortable with silence; allow time for the person you are speaking to reflect if necessary.
It’s easy to fall into habit, by asking lazy questions which you haven’t thought through or planned. Poor quality questions generate poor quality responses. Well-formed questions avoid this. They encourage reflection and engagement and are less likely to set up opposition or avoidance.
So, follow these basic ideas and you’ll find your conversations will be more effective and satisfying.