Adapted from Find Out Anything from Anyone, Anytime by James O. Pyle and Maryann Karinch (Career Press, January 2014).
From job interviews to the corner office, bad questions pollute the air. Bad questions often prompt incomplete or misleading answers and can undermine rapport. On the other hand, good questions are a valuable tool of rapport-building.
In a job interview, both the interviewer and the candidate need to be mindful of the value of good questions and how to ask them.
There are six types of good questions: direct, control, repeat, and non-pertinent. To describe them briefly:
Direct – You pose a simple question with a basic interrogative.
Control – You already know the answer to it when you ask it. It’s a way of finding out whether or not the person is lying, uninformed, and/or not paying attention.
Repeat – You ask two different questions that are after the same information.
Persistent – You ask the same question in different ways to explore all facets of the desired information.
Summary – You ask a question that is intended to allow the source an opportunity to revisit the answer.
Non-pertinent – It doesn’t pertain to the subject you really want to know about, but it’s one the person will probably not lie about; it serves the purpose of seeing what the truth “looks like” and getting the person to open up to you. It can also tie into the context of the questioning exchange.
Let’s look at each kind of question in more detail.
Direct questions are the best: One interrogative, one verb, and one noun or pronoun.
- Who reports directly to the CEO?
- What would you see as an outstanding accomplishment for someone holding this position?
- When was this position created?
- Where would I be travelling?
- Why did the company start de-emphasizing the original product line?
- How much does the position currently pay?
Control questions are deliberate questions you know the answer to, so they are not about discovery of information. They are about discovery of behaviour, patterns of speech, and level of truthfulness or accuracy.
Perhaps it’s something you talked about before with the person. If you know from someone else in the company that the position you’re applying for has an established salary range, you might ask, “What is the company offering as a starting salary?” You already have a good sense of the information; you just want to find out if the interviewer seems inclined to engage you in negotiation.
You want to come at the same information in two different ways. For example, if you asked, “How many people are on the sales force?” the person you’re speaking with might respond: “There are 22 in the field.” Later on, when you’re talking with him about something different – areas where the company has a foothold, for example – you might ask, “How many sales regions do you have?” He might respond, “22,” which is a way of confirming the number of personnel on the sales force. It’s not an absolute test, but it gives value and credence to what he said before. They are two different questions that cross-check the information provided.
In using repeat questions, you may also uncover discrepancies. If your source in this example responds that there are 28 sales regions, you would want some clarification. Maybe there’s a perfectly good reason – the sales force normally has a complement of 28, but there has been so much turnover lately, that they are six short – but the response does give rise to doubt the fact that there is a mismatch between the number of personnel and the number of sales territories. That mismatch must lead to further questioning to resolve the issue.
In any exchange in which more than one answer might be given to a question, use persistent questioning to get a complete answer. Like repeat questions, persistent questions are also useful if you suspect that the person is not being truthful.
“Where did your business trips to Asia take you?” might elicit the answer, “Taipei.” Although it’s possible that Taipei is the only place, it’s logical to follow that question with, “Where else?” Bypassing that repeat question and going straight to questions about Taipei means that you miss the opportunity to get a complete picture of the person’s business trips unless that information happens to leak out at some other time.
Summary questions aren’t about determining veracity as much as feeding back to the source what she has said so she has the opportunity to think, “Did I actually say what I meant to say?”
You might begin a summary question by framing it with, “So let me see if I got this right…”
Some people may not be comfortable asking a summary question because they don’t want to look simple-minded or inattentive. If you ask the question exactly the same way you asked it the first time, then that might be a valid conclusion. You also don’t want to ask the same question two times in a row even if you do change the phrasing. By putting some distance between the first time you pose the question and the second, and rephrasing the question slightly, you should simply come across as someone who’s really interested in what the other person has to say.
Let’s look at a tense interview situation from two perspectives – the interviewer’s and the candidate’s – to see how a non-pertinent question could be useful.
As the interviewer, you might detect that the person answering your questions seems stressed; a non-pertinent question could mitigate the tension.
In asking pointed questions such as, “What project did you undertake in the past that failed?” and “How did you try to fix the problem?” you can easily make a job candidate feel as though he’s in the middle of a battlefield interrogation. The candidate might say, “I tried to address the problem by rallying the department around a common goal – the way I get my son’s hockey team to focus on hitting the puck.” You can give the candidate a break by asking, “How long have you coached hockey?” before you return to the discussion of his screw-up and how he attempted to fix it.
The bottom line is this: Use questions like a handshake. They help you build rapport and learn about the other person.
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