Questioning for Understanding

‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood.’ This is just one of the habits of highly effective people taken from Stephen R Covey’s book. We primarily ask questions to get information, but questions are also a powerful communication tool to show that we are interested in the other person; that we care about what’s important to them; and that we are trying to understand their situation. So here are the top 10 types of questions and how to use them.

  1. OPEN questions begin with who, when, where, which, what, why and how. Use these to initiate a conversation, to encourage people to give you information and to clarify situations.
  2. CLOSED questions will give you a yes or no answer. They begin with verbs: do, can, are, will, have, etc. Use these to check facts, to bring a conversation back to the point or to close a conversation (great for shutting up chatterboxes!).
  3. SPECIFIC questions are open questions, but you use these when you want a specific answer. They usually contain a number – date, money, quantity, etc. So, When did you buy the product? Whom did you speak to earlier?
  4. Use PROBING questions to explore the other person’s thoughts and feelings. For example, Tell me about …, Explain why …, Describe …
  5. CHOICE questions are useful with indecisive people, as they help to move the conversation along. For example, Would you like me to complete this task first or make a start on the report? Aim to give people a choice of only two, otherwise you may confuse or distract them, especially if they are indecisive.
  6. CLARIFYING questions are used to check that you have understood what the other person is saying and to show that you are listening. To help me understand this better, I would like to clarify the points so far. You’ve said … Clarifying questions can help to build rapport with shy or nervous people, as they will feel that you are listening and understand them.
  7. LEADING questions can test reactions and relax nervous people. Beware, though, as others may feel you are leading, or even bullying, them. I bet you’re looking forward to next week. You are pleased with what I’ve done, aren’t you?
  8. Similar to leading questions, ASSUMPTIVE questions assume the answer you want is in the question. I assume you will want this finished by the end of today. Be careful of assumptive questions, though, as they can sound sarcastic or even patronising.
  9. REFLECTIVE questions help to find out what someone thinks or feels, help to clarify a tricky situation, or encourage others to expand on what they’ve just said. For example, You don’t seem very happy about that? I feel that you are disappointed.
  10. HYPOTHETICAL questions are good for testing reactions to a possible situation. They always start with ‘if’. If we had to delay delivery, how would that affect you?

A skilful questioner frames a question in their mind before asking the question. This way you truly consider the other person and so have a better understanding of others and the situation you are in.

Judith Di-Castri is a specialist communications consultant at Zee Associates ( She can be contacted on 01825 733621 or