How to Probe Like a Pro
Smart, helpful types (like you and me), are truly interested in what others have to say. We want to understand more than just the surface level, sometimes because we want to empathize, sometimes because we need or want to know more for its own sake.
Questioning can either lead directly to where our shared interests lie, or can complicate things. Many times we don’t even ask our questions because we have run into obstacles in the past. Or we ask, and it doesn’t go smoothly. Whether we work too hard at this by “drilling down,” or impose our own personal syntax, assuming others think as we think or ought to, we can even shut down the very source of what we want to know. Anyone tried to get information from your teenage kids recently?
Three techniques can be useful here.
One is, oh yes, simply to listen and provide cues that you are following the person. Then you get a pretty good handle on how they think and what they want to share. Your “helpful questions” will direct them where you want to go, not where they are headed on their own. To find out how they think, encourage, don’t probe.
Number two: Let’s say you hear them say something and you want to know more about that. Perhaps you are just curious, or perhaps you are conducting a job interview and need to know something exactly. Some smart folks work very hard to design questions to get under the surface.
There’s an easier way. Use the person’s own words, not ones you’ve constructed based on your map of the world.
They say, “It was exciting.” You say, “Exciting how?” They naturally tell you more, based on their way of experiencing the excitement. Attach “what,” “how,” or “which xxxx specifically?” and then sit back and listen. Encouraging questions like, “Then what?” or any variation of who, when, where, as well as how, elicit more detailed and specific information.
Third way to keep a conversation going without controlling it is to ask a very open-ended question that follows along their train of thought, such as “How was that for you?” It’s a wide open way to express interest and validation that what they say matters.
If you accompany these questions with listening signals, like moderate eye contact, “uh-huh’s,” and “oh, wow,” you will be getting out of your own way so that you can allow for theirs.
Now, none of this will be valuable if you are simply probing so that you can deliver a judgement or reframe what they say to your point of view. Good listeners are good learners, meaning that they actually learn from others’ sharing what they think and feel.
So, remind yourself when you are trying too hard to elicit information, that by creating rapport and a space of genuine listening, you can relax and receive the gems that someone else is willing to share.