Getting the hang of the different types of questions isn’t just about scoring better answers and creating solid connections. It’s also your ticket to steering clear of awkward misunderstandings and dodging those cringe-worthy communication breakdowns.
When Thomas Kuhn said, “The answers you get depend on the questions you ask,” he was definitely onto something.
Let’s explore the everyday types of questions people ask and the answers they’re likely to elicit.
Types of questions
Closed questions (aka the “Polar” question)
Closed or “polar” questions generally invite a one-word answer, such as “yes” or “no.” For example, “Do you drive?” or, “Did you take my pen?” They could also include answers to factual or multiple-choice questions, such as “What’s your name?” or “Would you like tea, coffee, or water?”
They’re popular as icebreaker questions in group situations because they’re easy to answer. Of course, most questions can be opened up for further discussion, including closed questions — but more on that later.
Useful for: warming up group discussions, getting a quick answer
Open-ended questions require a little more thought and generally encourage wider discussion and elaboration. They can’t be answered with a simple yes or no response. For example: “What do you think of your boss?” or “Why did you choose that car?”
Useful for: critical or creative discussion, finding out more information about a person or subject
These questions help gain clarification and encourage others to tell you more information about a subject. Probing questions are usually a series of questions that dig deeper and provide a fuller picture. For example: “When do you need the finished project,” and “Is it ok if I email it to you?”
Useful for: seeing the bigger picture, encouraging a reluctant speaker to tell you more information, avoiding misunderstandings
These questions are designed to lead the respondent towards a specific desired positive or negative route.
In the workplace, you might encounter leading questions such as: “Do you have any issues with the project?” or “Did you enjoy working on that project?” The former subtly prompts the respondent towards a negative response, the latter towards a positive. Asking, “How did you get on with that project?” will get you a more balanced answer.
Leading questions could also involve an appeal at the end designed to coerce the respondent into agreeing with the speaker. For example, “This project is going well, isn’t it?” encourages the respondent to say “yes.” This works particularly well because, psychologically, we prefer saying yes over no when we’re on the spot.
Useful for: building positive discussions, closing a sale, steering a conversation towards an outcome that serves your interest
A word of warning: It’s important to use leading questions carefully; they can be seen as an unfair way of getting the answer you want.
Loaded questions are seemingly straightforward, closed questions — with a twist: they contain an assumption about the respondent. Lawyers and journalists famously use them to trick their interviewees into admitting a fundamental truth they would otherwise be unwilling to disclose.
For example, the question: “Have you stopped stealing pens?” assumes the respondent stole a pen more than once. Whether she answers yes or no, she will admit to having stolen pens at some point.
Of course, the preferred response would be: “I have never stolen a pen in my life.” But it’s not always easy to spot the trap. These questions are quite rightly seen as manipulative.
Useful for: discovering facts about someone who would otherwise be reluctant to offer up the information
As with a funnel, these questions begin broadly before narrowing to a specific point — or vice versa.
When meeting someone new, we usually begin with specific, closed questions, such as “What’s your name?” and “What do you do?” — before broadening out into more open-ended questions, such as “Why did you choose to be a firefighter?” as you become more comfortable talking to each other.
The reverse — beginning with a broad question before honing in on something specific — is often used when questioning witnesses to gain the maximum amount of information about a person or situation. For example, “What do you do for a living? Do you work nights? Did you see a break-in? Was there more than one person?” And so on.
Funnel questions can also be used to diffuse tension: asking someone to go into detail about their issue distracts them from their anger and gives you the information you need to offer them a solution, which in turn calms them down and makes them think something positive is being done to help them.
Useful for: building relationships, discovering precise information, diffusing arguments
Recall and process questions
Recall questions require the recipient to remember a fact. For example, “What’s seven times seven?” and “Where did you put the keys?” or “What’s your login password?” Process questions, on the other hand, require the respondent to add their own opinion to their answer. These types of questions can be used to test the respondent’s depth of knowledge about a particular topic. For example: “What are the advantages of asking a closed question?” or “Why are you the right person to lead this project?”
Useful for: encouraging critical thought and in-depth evaluation of a subject in tests, interviews, or discussions
These are a different beast altogether because they don’t really require an answer. They’re simply statements phrased as questions to make the conversation more engaging for the listener, who is drawn into agreeing with you.
For example, “Isn’t it nice working with such a friendly team?” is more engaging than “This team is friendly,” which doesn’t require any mental participation from the respondent.
Coaches or public speakers often use rhetorical questions to get the audience thinking and agreeing. In this way, they’re a not-too-distant cousin of the leading question.
Useful for: persuading people, building engagement
Divergent questions are designed to explore various possibilities and perspectives. Instead of seeking a specific answer, they encourage creative thinking. For instance: “What are some alternative approaches to solving this problem?” or “How can we tackle this project from a different angle?”
Useful for: fostering creativity, encouraging innovative solutions
Evaluation questions aim to assess the value, effectiveness, or impact of a situation, decision, or action. An example might be: “How do you think the recent changes in our workflow have impacted team productivity?” or “What criteria would you use to evaluate the success of this project?”
Useful for: reflecting on outcomes, improving processes
Inference questions prompt individuals to draw conclusions based on existing information. For example: “What do you think the client’s reaction will be to this proposal?” or “Based on the data, what trends can we infer about market preferences?”
Useful for: developing critical thinking skills, making informed predictions
Comparison questions involve analyzing similarities and differences between options. “How does feature A of our product compare to a similar feature in our competitor’s product?” or “What are the pros and cons of the two approaches we’re considering?”
Useful for: informed decision-making, product development
Application questions focus on how knowledge or skills can be applied in real-world scenarios. For instance: “How can the insights from our recent training be applied to improve customer service?” or “In what situations do you see using the new software?”
Useful for: bridging theory and practice, enhancing practical skills
Problem-solving questions are geared toward finding solutions to challenges. “What steps can we take to address the current project delays?” or “How would you approach resolving conflicts within the team?”
Useful for: overcoming obstacles, fostering teamwork
Affective questions delve into emotions and feelings, offering insights beyond factual information. For example: “How did you feel about the outcome of the last client presentation?” or “What emotions do you associate with our recent achievements?”
Useful for: building empathy, understanding team dynamics
Structuring questions help organize information and thoughts. “Can you outline the key steps in our upcoming marketing campaign?” or “How would you structure the proposal to make it more convincing?”
Useful for: clarifying ideas, improving communication
A word on tone
Understanding tone, context, intonation, and body language helps us interpret all types of questions effectively. However, introducing technology, like a digital screen between interlocutors, adds a layer of complexity.
Emojis and gifs have made their way into the workplace, and they’re not going anywhere. They undeniably enrich interpersonal communication, offering a touch of humanity to digital interactions. When used adeptly, emojis and gifs inject a bit of fun into workplace communication.
By being mindful of tone while mastering the types of questions, you can elevate your work relationships to a whole new level.
This post was originally published on October 23, 2018, and updated most recently on November 14, 2023.