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  • Writer's pictureWendy Lynch and Clydette de Groot

Want someone’s input? How you ask makes a huge difference.

Questions have power. Questions can also empower. How you ask can determine the length, thoughtfulness, and tone of the response you get. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that some questions put people at ease, others threaten. Some questions invite creativity, while others provoke a safe, automatic reaction. When we take time to prepare and select our questions, we have a much better chance of getting the type of answer – and the rapport – we want.

Here’s an example. To test the effect of different questions, we ran a little study. People were asked about their breakfast (a generally non-threatening topic). Then we compared answers to two different ways of asking about breakfast. One group was asked “What did you have for breakfast?” and after each answer, were asked “what else did you have for breakfast?” two more times. Another group was asked “Tell me about your breakfast today”, followed by “tell me more about your breakfast…” two times.

What versus Tell me about.

Answers to the initial What question were shorter and given more quickly (less thoughtful) than responses to Tell me about. Only 17% of answers the What question used more than 10 words. By comparison, 52% of answers to the Tell me about were 10 words or longer.

More notable, follow-up What else questions resulted in progressively shorter and faster answers, while Tell me more invoked longer and more thoughtful answers.

By the third question, answers to the What Else question were an average of two words long (usually, “nothing” or “that’s all”). By comparison, answers to the third Tell me more averaged 16 words. Qualitatively, the What else group mostly stuck to lists of items, while the Tell me more responses described both the content and the circumstances of their breakfast. For example, one shared that breakfast is a quiet time they use to plan their day.

In terms of timing, the Tell me group paused twice as long before answering the third question compared to What else responses.

This indicates a less automatic and more thoughtful answer as they considered what they wanted to say. While 1.7 seconds may still seem short, it’s actually quite slow in thinking time, especially compared to the 0.8 seconds spent by those answering the What else question.

Thoughtful input

In surveys, professionals rate listening as the most important skill they need in interacting with co-workers. But perhaps as important as listening to someone’s answer is actually encouraging them to share something meaningful in the first place. You’ll notice that in this comparison, one group heard a question (what?), while the other heard an invitation (tell me…). It makes a difference.

There are simple things we can do to encourage thoughtful input, like showing genuine interest and openness makes a big difference in how others respond. Additionally, consider how you will invite them to share. If you want to gather thoughtful input, consider a

frame, like “I’m wondering”, or “I’d like to get your opinion” and then starting with Tell me about. You’ll get more information, with more depth, than starting with What, Who or When.

Remember, every conversation is a journey. Think about where you would like it to go.

For more information about the breakfast study, go to our audio library and listen to track 3 in the Questions about Questions section.

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