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Business English: Asking the Right Questions

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

These materials are designed to help you to prepare for a Functional Business English Skills lesson on: Asking the Right Questions.


Being able to ask the right questions to get to the information that you actually want is an essential skills in the workplace. Despite seeming relatively straightforward, it's actually quite a tricky skill to master when the information that you require is subtle, sensitive or complex. In this lesson we will look at how you can do this skilfully and effectively.


Instructions:

Firstly, look at the preparation tasks that I have chosen to help you to develop this skill. Then, look at the materials provided to help with your preparation tasks and in terms of your general understanding of this particular skill. Lastly, complete the tasks prior to the lesson. Starting by having the student complete a preparation tasks gives me an excellent foundation on which I can make sure that you have an understanding of appropriate language and vocabulary, good use of grammar and clear communicational skills to communicate clearly, confidently and professionally in English.


*If it's not possible to complete the tasks outside of the lesson, then we can do this as part of a lesson. I prefer to give student the option of doing as much work in their own time as possible to be more cost efficient and to maximise learning.


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The Preparation Tasks


To start to think about how asking the right questions can be done, think about the following scenarios below, they are all relatively broad but still very realistic;

  • You suspect a colleague is unhappy in their current role, and want to find out how they are feeling.

  • You sense tension between two colleagues, you are in conversation with one of them and want to understand their perspective of the situation.

  • You would like some feedback from a client, but sense they are unhappy with the service that they have received.

  • You need to chase up a colleague who keep missing deadlines, you suspect they are overworked and that is the cause of the missing deadlines - you need to find out when they will be able to finish a particular piece of work.

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The Materials


Years ago, during a meeting with our Team Manager to discuss a problem that the team was having with one of the Assistant Managers I was asked the question - "how are your assistant management skills Joel?", which I mistakenly believed was a way of asking me whether I wanted to take on the Assistant Managers position - luckily, before I could answer (and accidently promote myself) I realised that the actual question was meant to be "how skilled is the Assistant Manager supervising you Joel?". A totally different question requiring a totally different answer.


A simple conclusion from this is that we need to be aware of how we form questions to either avoid, misunderstanding, confusion or even offence.


Now obviously, if you want to know where the printer has been moved to, it's pretty simple to ask ("do you know where the printer is?... has the printer quit it's job?... who's hidden the printer then?") Instead I want to focus a bit more on the more complicated questions that we might want to ask, such as related to managing workloads, team dynamics, general workplace happiness and morale or interpersonal relationships within the team.


Here are a couple of things to keep in mind...


1) Words Matter: As a social worker, it happened frequently that I would be trying to ascertain whether someone was finding a particular situation overwhelming - by asking the question "are you managing okay?" (the word managing suggests a positive ability) the response was often that yes, the person was managing okay, but when the question was re-phrased as "are you coping?" (coping suggests that something is very difficult) then it often gave people the space to admit that they were overwhelmed and needed help.


These same words would be relevant when asking a colleague about their workload - "are you surviving with your workload?" will get a different answer to "are you still smashing all your targets?". Think again about the difference between "when will that piece of work be finished?" and the softer and more welcoming "when do you think that you can realistically finish that piece of work by?". Or "What do you think of work colleague X?" compared with "How do you find working with work colleague X?"


2) Focus on the information you want? This probably seems obvious, but think back from the answer you anticipate and want to correctly choose the correct type of question. Look at these questions and (the type of answer they might elicit).

  • "What do you think about...." (opinion).

  • "When did you start?" (starting point...).

  • "How long have you worked here?" (duration...)

Or,

  • "How long could you imagine staying in this company for?" (hypothetical opinion) compared with "so when will you leave the company?" (end date...)

Or,

  • "What is the team dynamic like?" (statement of opinion) compared with "How could the team dynamic be improved?" (creative ideas).


3) Tenses Matter: Remember, the Present Continuous suggests a temporary action, so "are you working in the HR dept. at the moment?" suggests the person being spoken to is not permanently in that team. Equally, "did you find it difficult to manage that project" suggests the difficulty is over. Careful with modal verbs too - "Can you do this?" might elicit an answer focussed more on whether it is possible, instead of being understood as a request.


4) Tone of voice and sincerity matters: It's clear from somebodies tone of voice whether they are asking something because they genuinely want to know, or whether they are simply asking for the sake of it. This is carried in our tone of voice, but also the choice of how a question is framed.


Try using the following;

  • I'd be really interested to know....

  • What would be really good to know is,...

  • What I'd really like to know is,...

  • I'd be interested to know what you think about,...

  • I wonder what,...


5) Leading questions: if I'm asking a question about something potentially controversial or complex, I might well use a leading question to set the tone of what the answer might be? For example, if you thought your colleague was unhappy about their job, instead of simply asking "are you happy with your job?" I might well say something like, "it really seems like you've got an enormous amount of work at the moment, I could imagine finding that very difficult myself, do you feel like you are managing here okay?"


How about these;

  • "The impression that I get is,... , what do you think?"

  • "I could well imagine that,... , would you agree?"


6) Mirroring and Labelling: Chris Voss is a former FBI hostage negotiator and the author of the book "Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It." In his book, Voss describes using mirroring and labelling as powerful techniques used in negotiation and more general communication to gather information.


Mirroring involves repeating the last few words of what the other person just said in a questioning tone. This technique helps to build rapport, establish trust, and encourage the other person to continue speaking.

For example, if someone says, "I'm really frustrated with this situation," you might mirror back by saying, "Frustrated with the situation?" This shows that you're listening and encourages the person to elaborate on their feelings. Mirroring can also help to uncover more information and potential solutions during negotiations. By reflecting back what the other person says, you can better understand their perspective and work towards finding a mutually beneficial outcome.


Labelling involves putting a name to the other person's emotions or feelings in a situation. It is a way of acknowledging their perspective and demonstrating empathy. Labelling can help to build rapport and trust, and it can also help to defuse tense situations by acknowledging the other person's emotions.

For example, if someone seems upset or frustrated, you might say something like, "It seems like you're feeling really frustrated right now," or "It sounds like you're feeling unheard and unappreciated." By labelling their emotions, you show that you are paying attention and that you understand their perspective.


According Chris Voss, labelling sentences would typically start with It seems like…It looks like… or It sounds like…. then would be followed by an expression of emotion; you feel stuck... you are not convinced by this proposal... you've had a bad day... you're worried about something... something is holding you back from making a decision....


The video below shows the two techniques being used in action;


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Finished


Having looked at the materials and completed the preparation tasks, you are ready for the lesson. Send anything you have prepared to me if you would like me to look at it before the lesson - joel.white.english@gmail.com



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