We all ask questions. It’s part of life. Sometimes we ask questions without realising that is what we are doing. It’s part of daily conversation - informal, chatty and natural.
Whenever we buy something, we’ll be asked questions. Those questions may simply be the checkout operator at a supermarket asking if we need help packing; the cashier at the bank enquiring if we’d like our withdrawal in £20 notes or the more detailed questions which we are asked when we buy something like insurance on-line.
Questions, questions, questions. We can’t escape from them!
We may ourselves sometimes need to ask formal questions as part of our job, elected office or profession. Those questions are rather more important than informal enquiries. Such questions are frequently asked in a public forum and need to be well structured and formal in tone.
It is imperative that elected Members are properly trained to ask questions in a logical and probing manner, so that they feel empowered to undertake scrutiny and other essential activities effectively.
But how do Members ask the right questions? Let’s look at the different types of questions available.
An open question gives the Subject the opportunity of telling you all that they know about a particular issue. Open questions are ideal to start the questioning of a Subject. Once the Subject has given an answer to an open question, you can get more detail – or focus on an area of interest - with closed or other types of questions. Example “In what way will this proposal adversely affect the environment?”
Closed questions tend to be the rapid-fire questions which we ask when we need short replies that are to the point. For example, asking a person what his or her favourite colour might be, will elicit a short one-word reply. Equally if we are pouring a hot drink and ask our guest if they’d like sugar, we expect either a polite “no thank you” or an indication of how many spoonfuls they’d prefer. These are the informal closed questions which we all ask, many times each day. Example “Did you write this report?”
A reflective question generally needs some data, some thing, or some fact to have already been established. For example, the Subject may have introduced a report outlining performance of a team or of a project. Once that input has been established, the Subject may be asked to ultimately consider how their work has impacted on a particular issue, themselves, a budget, or group of people etc. Example: “You’ve seen the outcome of this project, what lessons have you learned from it?”
We all know the folly of metaphorically comparing apples with oranges. It’s far better to compare apples with apples in order to get an objective measure of performance. Comparative questions are designed to encourage the Subject to compare their local data with either historic data from within the same organisation or data from some external body. If you are trying to determine the direction of travel for the performance of a Department or Service unit, you will need to have comparative data from previous months, previous quarters or previous years. Example: “How does your department’s performance compare with other local authorities?”
A supplementary question seeks to digress from the substance of the original question. Asking a supplementary question is not always a good idea. A supplementary question differs from a closed question. A closed question usually seeks more detail from a Subject in respect of their previous answer to an open question. Supplementary questions often seek to diversify the original questioning into other often unrelated areas.
Linked questions are a technique by which a questioner hears the Subject’s response to an earlier question, perhaps from a different questioner and then asks their own question in the context of that earlier reply. You can also paraphrase previously given long answers to introduce your linked question. Linked questions re-assure the Subject that his or her earlier response is being taken seriously and makes them feel that their participation is appreciated. This generally makes Subjects more forthcoming as they feel flattered to have made both an impression and a noteworthy contribution to the meeting. Linked questions can also be used to probe inconsistencies. Example: “In answer to my colleague’s question at the beginning of the meeting, you explained that yours was the single largest grant awarded to a regional museum last year. Can you tell me whether you expect to benefit from a similar award in the year ahead?”
One way of putting Subjects at ease, after they have begun to answer questions, is to pose to them a hypothetical question. Just like the dreaming prospective lottery winner, the Subject will feel remote from the scenario and generally be much more forthcoming and speculative. Example: “In an ideal world, with no cash restraints, how could this problem have been tackled differently?”
A common pitfall, which makes for unattractive democratic proceedings, is for the questioner to make a speech, covering a number of (often politically charged) issues and then expect the bemused Subject to either comment or give an answer. Similarly, an over-exuberance to squeeze-in several questions at one time is usually counter-productive, as the impact of each component is lost, the audience lose focus and the subject gets confused. These are called compound questions and are best avoided.
The subject is complex, but with proper in-house training, such as that offered by Excela, Members will flourish.
Kevin O’Keefe is a Solicitor and Director of Excela Interim Management & Consultancy Ltd.