Interviewing, coaching, mentoring while differing in outcomes all use common techniques to help the flow of conversation.
Or at least they should.
The whole objective of all of them is to help the individual to speak freely and openly and to give enough time for some thought.
So where can (and does) it go wrong?
The most common basic fault is normally the use of the closed rather than the open question. Typically a closed question would begin with a verb:
"Do you understand?", "Have you tried this before?", "Was it difficult?"” all of which can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no".
Ask a child a closed question and that is what you will get while an adult, if you stay silent, will try to amplify and explain their reasoning.
It does, however, put the individual into defensive mode, feeling that they need to explain their answer and that is not desirable.
On the other hand the open question will (or at least should) elicit a thoughtful response and not put the interviewee in defensive mode. None of them can be answered with "yes" or 'no".
To quote from a poem by Rudyard Kipling in the Jungle Book:
"I keep six honest serving men
(they taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Why and When
and How and Where and Who"
The open question is assertive whereas the closed question can be aggressive and if you are looking for good dialogue then that is not the way to do it.
One small caveat. The “Why” question can be couched in such a way as to sound aggressive so it needs to softened, for example,
"Could you explain why that is?"
The great cricketer and legendary broadcaster, Richie Benaud, had a saying that he put into use in every interview he conducted. He said:
"Never ask a statement"
and that is brilliant advice.
Far too often the interviewer (or coach for that matter) tries to inject his or her personal opinion into the discussion and then asks if their victim agrees.
My personal and consistent bête noir, the Today Programme on BBC Radio4, is a prime example of that technique.
Just note how many of their questions start with:
"Do you think.........."
and then go on to express the questioner's opinion and ask if the victim agrees.
Coaches can fall into the same trap if they not careful and remember, every leader at whatever level in a business should be a coach to his or her team.
Coaching helps people to be open and honest and to be able to react positively to situations.
Open questioning when used sensitively should allow that to happen naturally.
Another small caveat. It is perfectly acceptable to use the occasional closed question to make sure that you understand what has been said. That together with judicious paraphrasing can be very powerful.
I was recently trawling through a folder on the laptop that I had named Information and which is where I store useful bits and bobs that I could use at some time.
One if these was a piece entitled Great Coaching Questions and it was a list of typical questions that can come up with in most sessions.
This is not a good idea! The thought of having to revert mentally to a list in order to reply fills me with horror.
Indeed it exemplifies the maxim that:
"Too often we listen in order to reply when we should listen in order to learn".
Great coaches know that and live by it to the massive benefit of their clients
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