The Art of Effective Questioning: Asking the right question for the desired result.

The Value of questions

"Asking good questions is productive, positive, creative, and can get us what we want".1 Most people believe this to be true and yet people do not ask enough good questions. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that effective questioning requires it be combined with effective listening.

Effective questions help you:

  • Connect with your clients in a more meaningful way
  • Better and more fully understand your client's problem
  • Have clients experience you as an understanding, competent lawyer
  • Work with your staff more effectively
  • Help your staff take responsibility for their actions and solve problems within the workplace more easily
  • Cross examine more effectively
  • Take revealing depositions
  • Gather better information
  • Do more solution oriented problem solving
  • Improve your negotiating skills
  • Reduce mistakes
  • Take the sting out of feedback
  • Defuse volatile situations
  • Get cooperation
  • Plant your own ideas
  • Persuade people

Effective Questions

Effective questions are questions that are powerful and thought provoking. Effective questions are open-ended and not leading questions. They are not "why" questions, but rather "what" or "how" questions. "Why" questions are good for soliciting information, but can make people defensive so be thoughtful in your use of them. When asking effective questions, it is important to wait for the answer and not provide the answer.

When working with people to solve a problem, it is not enough to tell them what the problem is. They need to find out or understand it for themselves. You help them do this by asking them thought provoking questions. Rather than make assumptions find out what the person you are talking to knows about the problem.

For example: "What do you think the problem is?"

Behind effective questioning is also the ability to listen to the answer and suspend judgment. This means being intent on understanding what the person who is talking is really saying. What is behind their words? Let go of your opinions so that they don't block you from learning more information. Pay attention to your gut for additional information.

Powerful Questions

The following are examples of typical questions. These questions can help you improve your communication and understanding of the client or staff member.

  1. Identification of issue:
    These questions can be used in client interviews and meetings, settlement negotiations and to work with others in solving problems.

    What seems to be the trouble?
    What do you make of _________?
    How do you feel about _____________?
    What concerns you the most about _____________?
    What seems to be the problem?
    What seems to be your main obstacle?
    What is holding you back from _________________?
    What do you think about doing X this way?

  2. Further information:
    These questions can be used in depositions and to find out what someone has already done to resolve a work problem.

    What do you mean by __________?
    Tell me more about _______________
    What else?
    What other ways did you try so far?
    What will you have to do to get the job done?

  3. Outcomes:
    These questions can be used in settlement negotiations or while working with staff to plan how to do something.

    How do you want ____________ to turn out?
    What do you want?
    What is your desired outcome?
    What benefits would you like to get out of X?
    What do you propose?
    What is your plan?
    If you do this, how will it affect ________ ?
    What else do you need to consider?

  4. Taking Action:
    These questions can be used in working with staff.

    What will you do? When will you do it?
    How will I know you did it?
    What are your next steps?

Listening as Part of Effective Questioning

The client comes to you, not only for your ability to win a lawsuit, to negotiate a settlement, or draft a document, but also for your wisdom. You evidence your understanding or wisdom by listening to your client - not just asking questions or delivering the service.

When clients are listened to they feel understood and are more trusting of you. Effective listening is a skill that requires nurturing and needs development. Since lawyers are smart, the temptation is to get by with listening at a minimal level. To connect with your client and have them experience you as an effective lawyer requires you to maintain superior listening skills along with asking effective questions.

Factors that may work against effective listening include:

  1. A desire to keep control of the conversation.
  2. As highly trained professionals, lawyers want to demonstrate their intelligence and skills so they often want to give the answer before they have fully heard the question.
  3. Listening may result in hearing the client express feelings and emotions and some lawyers are uncomfortable with emotions and feelings being expressed. They think it is not within a lawyer's role or that it is unprofessional to do so.

When we really listen to a client, we begin to hear different levels of communication. Getting to a deeper level of understanding, rather than coming up with an immediate answer, is key to more effective problem solving. Listening in this manner allows the client to come up with their own solution or plan of action.

Consider the following different levels of listening:

Level 1 Listening:
When we are listening at level 1 our focus or attention is on how the words the other person is saying affect ourselves with minimal concern for the person talking. We listen for the words of the other person to see how they affect us. The attention is on me - what are my thoughts, judgments, issues, conclusions and feelings. There is no room to let in the feelings of the person being "listened" to. When listening at level 1 our opinions and judgments arise. Level 1 listening is appropriate when you are gathering information for yourself like getting directions or ordering in a restaurant or a store.

Level 2 Listening:
When we listen at level 2, there is a deeper focus on the person being listened to. This often means not even being aware of the context. Our awareness is totally on the other person. We notice what they say as well as how they say it and what they don't say. We listen for what they value and what is important to them. We listen for what gives them energy or sadness or resignation. We let go of judgment. We are no longer planning what we are going to say next. We respond to what we actually hear.

Level 3 Listening:
When we listen more deeply than the two levels described above, in addition to the conversation we take in all information that surrounds the conversation. We are aware of the context and the impact of the context on all parties. We include all our senses, in particular our intuition. We consider what is not being said and we notice the energy in the room and in the person we are listening to. We use that information to ask more effective questions.

Listening Skills as part of Effective Questioning include:

Attention and awareness result in articulation and succinctly describing what we have learned from our client. Sharing our observation clearly but without judgment does this. We can repeat back to our clients just what they said. We can expand on this by articulating back to them what we believe they mean. This helps a person feel heard. For example: "What I hear you saying is . . ."

Clarifying is a combination of asking and clearly articulating what we have heard. By asking questions our client knows we are listening and filling in the gaps. When our client is being vague, it is important for us to clarify the circumstances. We can assist them to see what they can't see themselves by making a suggestion. For example: "Here's what I hear you saying. Is that right? "

Being Curious
Do not assume you know the answer or what your client is going to tell you. Wait and be curious about what brings them to see you. What motivates them? What is really behind the meeting? Use your curiosity so that your next question can go deeper.

Silence Giving the person we are listening to time to answer questions is an important aspect of listening. Waiting for the client to talk rather than talking for them is imperative for an effective listener.

1Smart Questions