From questioning witnesses on the stand or taking depositions, to conducting preliminary client interviews, or simply interacting daily with other colleagues, effective communication is critical to your success as a legal professional. Among the most important communication skills to master is asking questions effectively.
We wrote previously about how to improve the ways you conduct client interviews. Here, we’ll dive more deeply into other questioning techniques to use when interviewing witnesses, clients, or even co-workers. We’ll also cover when to use each one, and how they work.
#1 Open-ended versus closed-ended questioning
Open-ended questions typically elicit more information, while closed-ended questions can be answered with one word or phrase. For instance, “Tell me what happened that night” is an open-ended question that might lead to your gathering plentiful information from the interviewee, whereas “where was the party” is a closed-ended question that can be answered directly with the address of the event, with no other detail.
Use open-ended questions when you want to initiate a conversation, find out more information about a situation, or explore the interviewee’s opinions more deeply. Use closed-ended questions to find out or confirm very specific details (e.g. the location example above), or to validate your understanding of a situation (e.g. “based on our conversation, my understanding is that we want to move forward with the proposal. Is that right?”).
#2 Funnel questioning
Funnel questioning involves an intentional sequence of inquiry that typically consists of a long line of closed-ended questions, which, when answered, can allow for more open-ended questions later on. For instance, if you wanted to learn about a car accident your client was involved in, you might choose to use a line of questioning similar to the one below:
Q: About how many other people were in the car with you?
A: Just two of us.
Q: Who was in the car with you?
A: My brother, John.
Q: Where were you driving to?
A: Our mom’s house, in Walnut Creek.
Q: What time of day was it?
A: Mid-morning, about 11 a.m.
Q: Tell me what happened when your car was hit?
A: [Open-ended answer.]
The funnel questioning technique is useful in gathering very specific information about the past (using closed-ended questions), which allows for a clear establishment of facts about a situation, or scene-setting. Once the facts have become clear, the interviewer can then begin to ask effective open-ended question that enable more exploration of opinions or issues.
#3 Asking probing questions
Probing is a technique that involves asking for more information about a previous statement. For example, if you needed something from a direct report who told you the information wasn’t accessible, you could ask, “what, exactly, makes the information difficult to access?”
Probing questions are useful if you need more information to clarify a situation, or if you need to sort out an issue by uncovering layers of details, opinions, or feelings.
#4 Asking leading questions
Leading questions are typically closed-ended lines of inquiry that result in the interviewer upholding the interviewee’s opinion. For instance, “when’s the soonest you can get me the report today?” already assumes the report can be ready today, leaving it more difficult for the interviewee to suggest an alternative timeline.
Leading questions can be useful to persuade one or more interviewees to a specific point of view or course of action. Of course, leading questions are not allowed during direct examination, but are permitted during depositions. Outside of trial and deposition contexts, using this technique to influence business decisions may not be ethical, and can harm relationships in the long run.
#5 Asking rhetorical questions
The purpose of rhetorical questions is not to elicit answers, but rather, to express key ideas or opinions in an engaging way.
For instance, if you were addressing a jury, saying “isn’t it true that the key witness in this case stated that he was only 70% certain of what he saw?” may be more effective than the statement “recall that the key witness in this case stated that he was only 70% certain of what he saw.” This article provides some other examples of how rhetorical questions can be useful persuasion tools when addressing juries.
Rhetorical questions are useful for persuading a listener by drawing them in, rather than simply telling or stating an opinion as fact, with no opportunity for engagement.
The takeaway? Questioning techniques can be useful in a range of applications, including but not limited to work situations. In the context of clients, these skills are important for learning about the details of the case, confirming information, and avoiding misunderstandings. In the office, they can be useful for the same reasons, as well as possibly managing direct reports, or mediating conflicts.
In any application, thoughtfully asking questions can be an opportunity to strengthen relationships, which can go a long way in helping your business to flourish.
What questioning techniques have worked to draw out answers from your interviewees? Share your strategies in the comments!