The most common form of workplace communication is the interview, and if we believe that an ‘interview’ only relates to employment, then we misunderstand the nature of workplace communication.  

We can be asking for facts and explanation, and we are conducting an interview.  We can talk to a staff member about their performance and we are conducting an interview.  We can advise about career progression – it’s an interview; and we can be asked for our opinions by our superiors and yes – that’s an interview too.

Now many of these examples will probably bring tortured exchanges to mind, when we were desperately trying to get the information out of someone and failing miserably! If we are honest we probably blamed the other person, but the real problem was that we failed to understand that we were engaged in an interview and had no idea what questions we may need to ask.

The Question of questions – if you wish to find out information, you must ask questions.  If you want to get commitment for an idea or action, you must ask for it.  If you want to know how someone feels about something you have to ask; and if you want to understand what others think you will need to ask them.

Questions are the very heart of any interview, they are fundamental to our purpose and often we do not use them to our advantage. There are different types of questions which can be asked to obtain different sorts of information.  Knowing what they are, what they do and when to use them is an important skill.

 The simplest question is the Closed Question, which is asked to obtain specificinformation.  It restricts the answers the other can give – ‘What was your last project?’ or ‘When did you last update your qualifications?’ are examples of closed questions that lead directly to the information required

Closed questions are best used to obtain or clarify specific information especially when time is short.  They can be a quick and easy way to establish what is known from what is unknown, forming a base to expand with the second type of question, the Open Question.

Using an open question encourages the person to expand on their response and gives them the freedom to discuss in more detail.  Open questions are useful in developing a rapport between you and the other person, especially if you use good listening skills to show interest.

“Why did you decide to do it that way?” is an example of an open question which should lead the other to explain, rationalise and justify their choice of action.

If you want to know what is being done ask a closed question; if you want to know how things are operating ask an open question.  If you want to get a feel of how decisions are being received ask an open question; if you want to know what has been decided, ask a closed question.

But the real art to interviewing is knowing how to ask both Primary Questions and Probing Questions.  Primary Questions are the ones that you planned to ask, and the probing questions, are the ones that arise out of the response to the original question. 
“What were the responsibilities of your last position?” is a primary question; “Did that also include any coaching or mentoring?” is a probing question used to expand the original question; ‘How do you feel about mentoring staff members?’ is another probing question, used in this instance to determine attitude.

Help! They don’t understand the Question

There are a number of traps that we can fall into, especially if we are engaged in an unexpected informal interview.  We are all busy people, and with time being at a premium, there is a temptation to save time by asking a double barrelled question, but unfortunately they only cause confusion and will probably need to be clarified, which wastes even more time. We may run into Bill in the corridor and need to find out some information, so we stop him with the question –

“What is the effect of the new price structure on sales; and how do our clients feel about it?”

This contains two specific questions and poor Bill now has to guess which one you think is the most important, organise his thoughts before [hopefully] delivering a coherent response.  Much better to ask this as two distinct questions:

Bill, What is the effect of the new price structure on sales?’ and when you know that you can expand it with the secondary question ‘how do our clients feel about the new structure?” 

Secondly the Bi-Polar Question, which indicates that there are only two possible options available. 

“Do you prefer working in a team or as an individual?”

Someone with a good knowledge of communication may presuppose other alternatives and could respond “It depends on the task and the circumstances” but if you are the manager or team leader, there will be an aspect of ‘authority’ and ‘status’ in the process which may inhibit the other person’s willingness to challenge your question.

It is much better to rephrase the question into an open one; “How do you like working with other people?”

Finally, we are not in a court of law, but even so we should also avoid the leading question. When you signify by the question itself what the preferred answer should be, you are asking a leading question, and no-one with an ounce of sense will disagree with you. 

Posing the question “Everyone else supports the new changes to the routine, how do you feel about it?” is a leading question. Asking this when you really do want to know if there is any opposition to the routine won’t get you anywhere.

“The new routine has been in effect for a month now, how do you feel it is working?” is a much better way to achieve your purpose.

Any interview is a structured conversation with the goal of obtaining and exchanging information – and to get that we just need to ask the right questions.

It really is a Question of Questions.

Michele @ Trischel

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