An effective listener must direct and guide many discussions including performance management, dealing with customers, interviewing job applicants, among others. One aspect of better listening is learning how to gather information via smarter questions. This is the second on major aspects of listening skills. See also

Requests for Information

A major type of questions are requests for information. The six common types are:

  • the invitation to talk
  • open-ended questions
  • fact-seeking questions
  • comprehensive questions
  • probing for specifics
  • encouragers

An invitation to talk is a statement rather than a direct question but it invites the person to talk about a given subject. For example: ” I’d like to hear about the goals you have for this year”. Invitations to talk feature:

  • It focuses attention on a specific topic but gives a wide range of options to the person responding.
  • Its use keeps your views from influencing the response you will receive or tipping your hand about what you want to hear.

Interspersed with direct questions, it can keep a discussion or interview more comfortable and less like an interrogation.

Open-ended questions are good ways to start a flow of information because they call for an extended answer and cannot be answered “yes” or “no”. They give people room to respond and communicate that you are interested in the response.

  • For example: “Do you like your job?” can be answered yes or no and is closed-ended. Rephrased as “What do you like most and least about your job?”, it communicates that you really want to know details and their ideas.

Fact-seeking questions are designed to elicit very specific or factual information. They are questions with a narrow, more precise focus. Here are some examples:

  • What did you do to resolve the customer’s complaint?
  • How do you want our current policy changed?
  • What training have you had on X software?

These questions are used to obtain information you do not have which you need to accurately evaluate the problem or person. When you interview a person, you should prepare some fact-seeking questions based on their resume or screening interview and the job specifications.

Comprehensive questions are a good way to introduce a topic and get someone talking. These questions mention the broad area you want to discuss and identify some to the specifics you are interested in. They can be phrased as a question or an invitation to talk. An interview example is:

  • “Joe, I’d like you to tell me about your current job. Give me a general overview and include the things you are most excited about, typical projects, and anything else you want to mention.”

One of the nice things about a comprehensive question is that it gives the person some helpful hints about what to include in the answer. It is a good “warm-up” question for people who may be nervous during coaching or are not talkative by nature. It provides you with an understanding of the person and allows you to probe for more information in areas which are important. Comprehensive questions are a little uncomfortable for many people to use until they get used to them.

Probing for specifics can be done with questions or a pause and a curious look. This technique is useful when you need more information, when you have not clearly understood the person, or when something is unclear.

When probing for more specific information, remember

  • don’t cut off the flow of information while it is useful. Wait and go back or interrupt if the person is now making less important comments.
  • do your probing in a neutral tone of voice so that you do not convey annoyance or impatience and thus stop the flow of the discussion.

Encouragers are short signals you are really interested in what a person has to say. They encourage a person to talk freely and are especially useful if a person is having trouble getting started. Encouragers can be verbal or non-verbal. Verbal encouragers might be:

  • “When you say you might be interested..?”
  • “Uhm-hmm”
  • “That’s hard to answer in a word or two -take your time to think about it”

Non-verbal encouragers might be:

  • Nod yes
  • Lean forward and look interested
  • Raise your eyebrows or ‘cock’ an ear forward

Verbal and non-verbal encouragers are most effective when used together.

Encouragers are much more effective than what most people do when someone either hesitates or gives a brief answer, which is to start talking. Many people are made uncomfortable by silence and thus start talking to reduce the discomfort. This reduces what you will learn from the person and makes the person less likely to talk when you do finish.


Expressions of  Understanding
Another aspect of guiding a conversation is through expressions of understanding. Whenever two human beings talk, misunderstandings and disagreements are likely to occur. This is most likely when the discussion is about something important, when there is a difference of opinion or different perspectives. This third major listening skill area deals with how people achieve understanding despite their differences.

The primary purpose of expressions of understanding is to make certain that

  • you really do understand what the other person is saying or feeling,
  • the person understands your communication, and
  • that the channels are clear and open.

Three techniques for this are: reflecting feeling, paraphrasing, and summarizing.

Reflecting feeling: Often it is not what a person says but how they say it that counts. The emotion behind the message is more important that the words. When you want to respond to the emotion rather than the content, you use this technique. First, you identify the feeling behind the other person’s remark: pride, anger, frustration, excitement, confusion, determination, or whatever. Then, you reflect the feeling back as a question: “it sounds as if you’re feeling (emotion)…?”

This response sends the important message that you are interested in the whole person, their thoughts and feelings as well as specific facts or ideas.

If you do this in a situation where people are upset or nervous, like performance counseling, be prepared for an outpouring of emotion. But if you listen carefully and respond sensitively, the person will wind down and feel more understood as well as be better able to understand you and address the issues. In an interview, it also helps understanding and enables open responses to other questions.

Paraphrasing is similar to reflecting feelings except that it concentrates on word content. You simply repeat the essence of what you understood the person to say using your own words. Paraphrasing has several purposes:

  • it clearly indicates you have been listening
  • it gives the other person a chance to correct any misunderstandings you have
  • it encourages the person to build on what they have already said.

A good paraphrase often seems to tie together a remark concisely with a word or phrase that fits perfectly and leads the other person to say “exactly!”.

  • An example:
  • Interviewee – “The worst boss I have had is one who required everything to be done exactly his way. Even when he did not say how he wanted soemthing done, he expected you to read his mind. He never realized anyone else had ideas or experience about how to do things well. And results did not matter – even a perfect product wasn’t right by him if it were not done exactly his way.”
  • Interviewer – “So you dislike a boss who doesn’t respect your ideas or listen to you even when you perform well.”

3. Summarizing is similar to paraphrasing but highlights only the main points made in a lengthy exchange. It condenses a good deal of information into major points or themes. It has the same basic purposes as paraphrasing. It also is helpful in several other ways:

Knowing that you are going to summarize a lengthy series of remarks helps you concentrate on listening to what is said.

A good summary helps sharpen a rambling or hesitant series of remarks by highlighting the main points clearly and giving the other person a chance to
add major ideas s/he had not included.

Summarizing provides an excellent transition from one segment of an
discussion to a new area. You can say something like: “Unless you have something else to add, I’d like to move on to……….”.


A. Paying attention visibly

  • making eye contact frequently
  • good body language
  • minimizing distractions

B. Eliciting information effectively

  • invitations to talk
  • open-ended questions
  • fact-seeking questions
  • comprehensive questions
  • probing for specifics
  • encouraging

C. Increasing understanding

  • reflecting feelings
  • paraphrasing
  • summarizing

You can practice these skills at work and at home or events. Becoming a better listener helps you succeed in many areas!