5 ways to effectively probe to prevent misunderstandings

Are you good at listening and questioning?  How would you rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10?  The sad fact is that most of us think we are good at questioning, when really the majority only listen long enough to be able to formulate an answer.  Then, when we are questioning we only go deep enough to appear interested or to validate what we think we already know.

I’m preparing some exercises for a training session on facilitation, which will of course, include listening and probing.  It made me re-evaluate my own skills, so I thought I would share some of my insights with you.  Of course, anyone who’s tried to improve their listening, questioning and probing skills will have heard phrases like “Tell me more,” and “Can you give me an example” which can be used to help dig a little deeper.  But how do you know when you’ve probed enough?


I just finished reading “Taking Responsibility for Receiving Intended Information: Clarification Tactics,” a chapter in Dr. Richard Halley‘s book, Listening Models and Procedures.  In it he says that the burden of understanding is shared between the speaker and the listener.  He gives a long list of techniques to help you probe and question, but here are my favourite five!

1. Discover and understand any hidden objectives

When speaking with someone, you might realise that they have an axe to grind.  If you are not careful, it can derail your whole conversation and prevent you from reaching an understanding.  Also, if someone has a hidden goal, it can be hard to get that person to focus on the question you want answered.  Instead of ignoring the elephant in the room, saying something about it can sometimes help the person focus more on your information needs. For instance, you might say, “The reason I approached you was _____________, but it seems you would like to talk about ____________.”  This will then allow the person time to voice their feelings and then you can bring the subject back to the matter at hand.

2. Ask for specifics

Reduce ambiguity, by asking for a specific description of what the speaker is trying to convey.  It reduces the chance of misunderstanding and add depth to the discussion.  For instance, “I really appreciated the way the manager took me to one side after the meeting, and took the time to listen to what I had to say” gives us a lot more information than “I spoke with the manager.  It went well.”  When you hear a phrase that is really general, ask a probing question to discover more, “So what exactly was it about ___________ that makes you say that?”  Or “I’d appreciate it if you could expand a little more on this.  What was it about specifically?”  Of course, even when they’ve given you more detail, you can continue to probe until you’ve exhausted the subject and there is no room for misinterpretation.


3. Try to find what something is not

Usually we are trying to understand what something is, but it is also useful to understand what it is no.  You might be able to eliminate categories of options and avoid misinterpretations in this way, especially when someone is having a hard time expressing themselves.  Phrases like “So, it’s not that it was horrible or anything?” will help to identify a mediocre experience.

4. Be aware of your assumptions

This is difficult.  We all have internal biases that can cause us to make false assumptions.  As listeners though, it is important to be sensitive to our biases and to check out any assumptions we have made.  When one customer tells you that they had a bad experience with a product, and you’ve heard from another customer that they also had a bad experience it could be natural to assume that they had the same experience.  Check the assumptions at the door and continue to probe to ensure you have the correct understanding.  It also works with people.  When someone is being quiet and retiring, don’t assume they have nothing to say.   Instead ask, “How about you?  I bet you have something to add to what the others have said.”


5. Ask the speaker to review

We can easily miss words or misinterpret what is said.  Asking the participant to review their comments, even if we think we know what they said, gives both the speaker and the listener a chance to add more clarity to what was said.  You might say, “I know you’ve already explained that once but it would help me really understand if you could go over it one more time.”  They will naturally use different words, and this can lead to more insights.  You can also weave earlier comments into your questions to make the speaker review what they have said in another way.  It also shows that you were listening and processing what they said and the speaker does not need to recontextualize their comment.  They can then pick up where they laid off – another way of probing deeper with the subsequent response.

What questions do you use to probe and dig deeper?  Let me know!

+Alesandra Blakeston

3 thoughts on “5 ways to effectively probe to prevent misunderstandings

  1. Even though I am an executive coach and do this for a living, this was a great post because it made me stop and reflect on my own current questioning and listening skills (and provided a number of really useful tips). Thanks!

  2. #3 on your scale is a great help. I like to ask compare/contrast questions — particularly trying to understand feelings. People questioned will often describe exactly words/actions of others. The contrast helps you better understand their interpretations, feelings and biases. The contrast/comparison gives you a bigger frame in which to work out problems and solutions.

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