By Steve Adubato, PhD

Asking questions is an art form. Some people are a lot better at it than others. The most effective professionals in sales, customer service or counseling, are those who truly understand how to ask questions.

One of the most effective questioning techniques is called the "funnel" approach. Picture what a funnel looks like--wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. The idea is to ask broad, very general questions at the beginning and continue to narrow the focus of your questions with greater specificity. Your goal is to draw out your audience, be it one or one hundred, in an effort to capture their true wants, hopes and needs.

Your first question(s) opens the door. You want to get the other person talking. Consider some general questions that achieve this goal:

  • What do you like most about your work?
  • What goals do you and your organization want to accomplish over the next six months?
  • How do you see your personal and/or professional life changing over the next several years?

Then, the key is to truly listen to what is said and make sure the next questions you ask tap into what you've heard. Start narrowing the funnel. So, for example, if someone responds to the question regarding what they like most about their work; "I enjoy the challenges I face on a daily basis and the opportunity to take risks," a logical follow-up question would be, "That's great, George, but could you tell me of a recent challenge you've had in the last month or so?" or, "What's the biggest risk you've taken recently and how did it work out?"

Next you get even more specific. Now you are getting to the bottom of the funnel. "What was the reaction of those around you to how you took on the challenge?" or "When you took on that risk, what was your greatest fear or concern?" Then finally, at the bottom of the funnel, you might say; "What's the biggest lesson you've taken away from this?"

As you can see, the questions become more and more specific. Resist the urge to jump around to different topics or other lines of questioning that have nothing to do with the area you are attempting to explore. You can't have several funnels going on at the same time.

One of the biggest questioning mistakes people make is to ask questions without a game plan. They are all over the map. It is as if they think that magically they are going to unearth some crucial information from a customer with this haphazard technique. Well, it is not going to happen. Plus, you are wasting valuable time and turning people off.

The funnel approach of questioning is also extremely helpful in solving problems, identifying opportunities and resolving conflict. Consider this. If you are in a debate with someone, what do you accomplish by simply arguing the same point over and over again? Usually nothing. So, instead of making a point or arguing with someone, ask a question; "Jim, I want to understand this. If we do what you propose, what impact do you think it will have on our customers?" The goal is to get out of argument mode and move to a more productive dialogue with Jim. A probing question is a great way of switching gears. Then, once Jim responds, you can proceed with the funnel approach by asking a more specific question.

Simply put, questions are powerful, so how you ask them should be taken seriously. Try the funnel approach with some sticky issue or challenge at work or at home. Write back and tell me what happened.