“They answered my questions with questions”. These lyrics, from a haunting song in 1976 by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, remind us that the best way to answer a question is often by posing another in return. That’s also a way to get your point across, especially if you don’t wish to appear too assertive – or want to plant a seed so that the other person reaches a conclusion for themselves.


As we experience another general election campaign full of assertions, provocations, arguments and counter-arguments, this is a good time to consider questions: What are they actually offering to achieve? How will that be delivered? Where will the funding come from? When will we see the results? What are the criteria for success? Who is most likely to address the underlying problems we face? Why should I vote for …?


Readers of these pages are, I assume, mainly professional people whose occupations depend on eliciting information from other people, whether in preparation for, or during, meetings and negotiations, or perhaps in court rooms and tribunals. As a mediator and facilitator, questions are at the heart of what I do. And yet it is so easy to default into assertion or argument, or to propose solutions, when what is really needed is genuine exploration of deep underlying issues, which good questioning skills enable. As Jung put it, “The ability to ask questions is the greatest resource in learning the truth”.


Being able to ask effective questions marks out successful people too. Self-help guru Tony Robbins once said: “Successful people ask better questions and, as a result, they get better answers”. Better answers produce better outcomes. Excellent questioners are also genuinely curious.


Some years ago, when I was engaged in advocacy training, our test in workshops was this: why am I asking this question of this person at this time in this way?  Identifying your purpose is clearly the first step while formulation (“in this way”) is central to effectiveness. Open or closed? Leading or neutral? Tone, inflection, emphasis, word choice, precision of language, posture, gesture, eye contact, facial expression – these all come into play. Changing just one word – or how we say it – may make all the difference. How many of us consider these aspects day to day? And, if we did, how much more effective could we be?


When coaching politicians on effective scrutiny, in parliamentary committees in legislatures throughout the UK, I’ve encouraged the use of questions for hypothesising, clarifying, summarising and probing, while urging elimination of unnecessary and time-consuming preambles. This all takes practice.


Context is important. What someone hears may be quite different from what the questioner intended, influenced by the filters and cognitive biases that affect our reaction to others and what they say. What may be meant as an innocuous question could be perceived as a threat if someone is feeling vulnerable or undervalued. Little things can so easily lead to escalation – indeed, in my experience, many disputes can be traced back to some apparently trivial event in the past.


Of course, if you wish to catch someone out, or put them on the spot, as some courtroom cross-examiners aim to do, a confrontational question may be an important tool in your armory. And never forget the value of silence. Even if it feels painful, don’t fill the space. If you can keep quiet after posing your questions, the answers will come.


To end with another 1970’s musical reference, reggae singer Johnny Nash sang that “There are more questions than answers”. That’s useful for all professionals – and politicians – to remember.


John Sturrock, The Scotsman, 10 June 2024


Previous Post

Subscribe to our newsletter

I would like to be subscribed to Core News *