Last reviewed 17 February 2012
Questions are asked to elicit information either because information is genuinely needed or it is just a polite enquiry.
An example of the latter is “Hi, how are you”? It is another form of saying “hello” and a full detailed report of their state of health is not the answer wanted at all but a breezy “fine, thanks” is all that is required.
When information is genuinely wanted the way the question is phrased can be all-important.
The main types of question
There are eight main types of question.
Open questions are those that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no”, but require someone to speak and give information. Open questions often begin with the words what, why, when, who, how or tell me.
Closed questions are those that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” and are useful for checking facts. “So you are saying the bus comes at 4.30pm?”
Specific questions determine facts. “How much does parent X owe?”
Probing questions can make people feel like they are being interrogated; but are useful to “drill down”, exploring a specific area.
Hypothetical questions, often used in interview situations, these explore a future theoretical situation, to find out how someone may cope with a new situation.
Reflective questions are used to check understanding. Paraphrasing what the speaker has said to confirm that what was understood to be said, was said.
Empathetic questions are the same as reflective questions — using these can be a useful tool when dealing with difficult or angry people and defusing emotional situations. It demonstrates that their problem or complaint is being taken seriously.
Leading questions are those that indicate to the person being questioned, the answer they are expected to give. “You will be able to cope won’t you?” The “won’t you” clearly indicates the answer expected. Leading questions do not provide honest views and opinions. They can also be used to intimidate and are better not used.
Why use questions?
Using questions well can help managers get to the bottom of a problem, develop staff and develop the business.
Respect others (staff and parents) and ask for their ideas. When a manager asks for ideas they are acknowledging that their staff are good. This increases their sense of self-worth and belonging, increases confidence and staff perform better.
“Empowering” was a word we left behind in the 1990s, but it is still a good word as an empowering question encourages people’s development in thinking, analytical and problem-solving skills.
When a staff member comes to their manager with a problem, the manager will often try and give a solution. But should they?
Is the manager always 100% right in everything they say and do?
Is the manager’s way always the best?
Do they want to create a situation where staff are dependent upon them?
Do they wish to stifle free thought and ideas?
Well, a bad manager might, but a good one will want to develop the staff and give them independence so the manager can get on with the job of developing the business.
Giving the solution to a problem may be easier and appear to be the most efficient, but this short-term gain could be a long-term loss. It may stifle fresh and powerful ideas, while giving the manager extra work and not looking to staff development, which leads to a successful business.
Phrase questions thoughtfully
The manager should not assume they have all the facts. Create clarity by encouraging the person to be able to arrange and articulate their thoughts and ensure the manager understands fully. “Can you explain more about this situation?”
Enhance relationships by not asking “have you finished writing those procedures yet”, but rather “how is the procedure writing going”. The first is quite aggressive and if there are problems, they are unlikely to be voiced. The second encourages discussion.
Asking the “what” question helps with analytical and critical thinking. “What are the consequences of doing that?” Encourage people to explain how they got to their conclusion.
Help them think outside the box or use breakthrough thinking. “Can this be done any other way?” The worst possible answer is “why, we have always done it that way!” Challenge the assumption that, in this example, it is the only (best) way was the “old” way.
People implement change or ideas better if they own the solution. Rather than impose the solution ask “based on your experience, what do you suggest we do?”
While the care and development of the children is a priority for providers, take time to ask open questions of staff, parents, etc. They are best not asked without warning, but prior to a staff meeting or an appraisal meeting; within a newsletter. “What one new idea and/or strategy do you believe would best contribute to the success and/or development of the provision and the children in our care?” Now that is quite a big question, give time for reflection and keep an open mind on the responses.
Managers (owners and directors) should not only “question” staff, but themselves as an aid to business development and success. Honest questions deserve honest answers.
What do we do well?
What do we not do so well?
What should we start doing?
What should we stop doing?
Acknowledge the good; improve the not so good. Implement good new ideas and accept that when something is not necessary, not working or not profitable, it should cease.
Do we have a clear vision for the provision for the next 3, 5 and 10 years?
What are our current three top priorities?
Do we have a business plan and is it up to date?
What are the three biggest threats to our business?
Understand the current market place as well as plan for the future.
What makes our business, our childcare, better than others?
What can we learn from others that they do better than us?
What value do our services offer to parents?
Are our marketing activities effective in terms of new business and value for money?
All businesses must do ongoing market research: knowing what the competition offers; what the customer wants and how to promote those benefits to them.
Is the business growing cash or debts?
If the provision lost 5% or 10% of filled childcare places, how quickly would cash flow issues arise?
What is the profitability of the business overall and how much profit/loss does each of its component parts deliver?
Does the provision have up to date and accurate financial information?
Many a good business has been lost when the financial side of the business is not under control.
Questions therefore need to be given serious consideration, as do their answers.
Einstein said that “the important thing is not to stop questioning” and if it was good enough for Einstein, it is good enough for us.