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How to Use a Good Conversation Question to Fuel Discussion

Aug 18, 2007
Asking the right questions can help you to kick off a conversation on a positive note. However there are a few secrets to making the most of this tactic.

What you need to do is keep in mind that conversations should be a two-way process. Questions can be used at all stages of a conversation and for various reasons, but their aim should be to bring the other person into the conversation and help them to contribute fully towards fulfilling the aim of the conversation.

What makes a good conversation question?

What makes a good conversation question? That's a very good question! It depends on why you're asking the question. Basically, what you need to do is keep in mind that conversations should be a two-way process.

Questions can be used at all stages of a conversation and for various reasons, but their aim should be to bring the other person into the conversation and help them to contribute fully towards fulfilling the aim of the conversation.

1. Open-ended questions are great for bringing another person into the conversation and showing them that you care about what they say. Open-ended questions can't be answered with a one word answer like 'yes' or 'no'. That's good because the answer then gives you something to build upon in your next responses.

Are there any drawbacks to using open-ended questions?

Unfortunately, yes, open-ended questions have their problems. They work well where everyone in the conversation wants to share control of the conversation, listen to everyone else and there is enough time for the conversation to allow for proper sharing and listening. Where that isn't the case and time is limited, open-ended questions may be a luxury you can't afford.

Open-ended questions also imply shared control of a conversation, and that shared control has to be real in order to be meaningful. If you're a boss talking to a worker and wanting them to follow some instructions for you that are not negotiable - don't waste time with open-ended questions.

2. Mirror questions can be used to encourage other people to speak in a conversation. They are non-directive, though, because they leave the respondent space to decide how to respond. Mirror questions are aimed at getting more detail from someone on a topic you've already been talking about.

Here is an example of a mirror question:

"I'm feeling really tired" can be mirrored back to the person as "Do you feel like you haven't as much energy as usual?"

3. Probing questions are a way of getting more information or clarification on a topic. They aren't interrogations or cross -examinations. They are follow-up questions that request more information from the other person. These are good questions because most people need to be encouraged if they are to talk in greater depth and learn more about each other.

Few people divulge more information willingly, perhaps for fear of 'going on' and boring people. Help them to open up by asking a probing question.

"You bought that shirt at _________? How do you find their sizing? Do they give small or large fits, do you think?"

4. Leading questions are bad. Don't use them. They can be manipulative, getting people to say what you want them to say. The information you get from them can therefore be false, as the person answering you may just say what they think you want them to say. That's not a great basis for a conversation is it?

So, remember to use questions as a really useful tool within your conversations. Good conversation questions really take your conversations to a deeper level and enable you to find out a lot more about the person you're talking to.
About the Author
Peter Murphy is a peak performance expert. He recently produced a very popular free report: 10 Simple Steps to Developing Communication Confidence. Apply now because it is available only at: conversation starters
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