Charge the Line

Part 3: Why Do We Communicate? - Exploration

By Josh Fowler

We communicate in order to seek information and we do so by exploration. When we’re seeking information, the technique of probing becomes an important approach. While not completely understood, probing can help clarify meaning and serve as a determining factor as to ensure that a message was clearly understood.

Asking appropriate questions is a skill that most are unaware of. In fact, asking good questions at the right moment can be especially challenging. While non-exhaustive, below are four techniques to practice the art of probing.

  1. Ask closed questions – these questions can be answered with a single word or phrase and are not very useful for obtaining information, but can set the stage for further probing.

    • Do you mind if I ask another question?

    • Am I correct in saying that…

    • Is it okay if I continue?

    • Would you agree that…?

    • Closed questions can be more effective than direct statements for conveying some messages. If the purpose is to obtain information, closed questions should be used sparingly and with the utmost care.

  2. Open Questions are much more effective than their closed counterpart for obtaining information should the other person be willing to share. The choice of questions depends on the relationship between the parties involved. When there’s mutual trust and confidence, questions are less likely to be misinterpreted. However, when there’s little relationship, lack of confidence, or doubts about motives, phrasing of the questions are vital.

  3. Information-Seeking statements – Some statements effectively ask questions. For example, instead of “You don’t agree?,” you could pose, “Please tell me why you feel that way.” “Tell me more about…” is not much different than “What is this all about?” Other examples could include: “Let’s talk about that a little more,” “I believe you said that…,” “I was wondering what…,” etcetera.

  4. Moments of Silence – At times, when someone has responded to an open question, you may feel that more information is warranted. Asking a follow-up question may be tempting however, you may find it effective to briefly remain silent. Silence can be uncomfortable for some, yet others may need more time to process their answers. Silence can sometimes allow amplification or another thought that a premature follow-up question could derail. Don’t overdo moments of silence. It’s all about balance; neither too long, nor too frequent.

Exploration and probing can be a double-edged sword, so a word of caution: Without careful attention, the other person may feel like they are being “pumped” for information or worse, interrogated. Remember, you’ve been warned!

Sharing information is therefore an essential companion to effective probing, and you should provide [ample] input between questions. - Harry Carter & Erwin Rausch, Management in the Fire Service