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Follow-up Questions Are The Secret To Meaningful Conversations – Step 3

Use Follow-up questions to seek more information - Active Listening Step 3

​Imagine that you’re a healthcare worker in a patient handover meeting. The handover is going smoothly with the other worker sharing the important information you need. But in passing they make a comment that catches your attention. Do you let it go? Or do you probe further? Opportunities to glean more information occur all the time. In this article we look at Step 3 of the Active Listening Process - using targeted follow-up questions to draw out more information.

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Missing Information Leads to Misunderstanding

In most discussions there are two main reasons for needing more detailed information. We need sufficient information to accomplish tasks efficiently. And information helps us to empathise with the speaker, understanding the discussion topic from their perspective (i.e. cognitive empathy or perspective taking).

During a conversation however, the speaker is continuously making judgement calls as to how much information to share. The amount they share is based on their willingness to share and also on their assumptions about how much they think you know - and think you want to know - about the topic.

Some people don’t share enough for us to make informed decisions. Others share wwaaayy too much!

Not receiving enough information very quickly raises questions in our minds, which we must answer to avoid misunderstanding the person and making wrong decisions.

So after we’ve spent a few minutes listening for the total meaning of the speaker’s message (see Active Listening Step 2), asking some thoughtful follow-up questions will prompt the speaker to share the missing information that we need.

Three Types of Follow-up Questions

Whilst there is no restriction on the follow-up questions we can ask, some questions are much more effective at drawing out the information needed to increase our understanding.

I call them Active Listening questions.

We can fit many Active Listening questions into one of three groups:

  • Clarifying questions
  • Elaboration questions/statements
  • Reflective listening questions/statements

Here are some that I find useful.

Clarifying Questions

Questions to clarify ambiguous and confusing statements.

  • “Why is that?”

  • “What did you mean when you said [abc]?”

  • “What’s the background?”

  • “Can you please clarify [xyz]?”

  • “How so?” Example: “Jack and I were polar opposites.” “How so?”

Elaboration Questions & Statements

Questions that draw out more information by encouraging the speaker to elaborate further.

  • “Tell me more.”

  • “What do/did you like about it?”

  • “What does that look like?” or “What might that look like in practice?”

  • “So you thought [xyz]. What did you actually experience?”

  • "How did you come to that opinion/conclusion?"

  • “You keep coming back to [xyz]. Why the attraction?”

  • “Earlier you mentioned [xyz]. How does that [impact on, relate to, affect, compare with] what you’ve just shared?”

  • “And that means?”

Reflective Listening Questions

The above questions help our understanding of the speaker’s literal, spoken words (i.e. their verbal cues). But as discussed in Step 2 - Listen For Total Meaning we must always interpret this literal content in the context of their underlying feelings and attitudes towards the topic.

A simple way to test your understanding of any feelings and attitudes that you observe is to reflect them. For example:

  • "You look [enthusiastic, passionate, motivated, excited]. What’s up?"

  • “It sounds like you’re [frustrated, bored] with [this project]. Why is that?”

  • “You hesitated. Why is that?”

  • “You sound [happy, excited, angry, irritated, etc]. Tell me about it.”

I'm always amazed at the effectiveness of reflective listening to encourage genuine, open dialogue. Reflective questions create an opportunity for the speaker to open up and share more candidly how they feel about the discussion topic.

Active Listening Questions Are Always Open-Ended

It’s important to realise that Active Listening questions such as those above are always open-ended. Open-ended questions are phrased so as to encourage a full and meaningful answer, which is the kind of information we’re seeking. They can't be answered with a single word answer, “yes” or “no”.

In summary, seeking clarification, encouraging elaboration and reflecting feelings are the primary ways that we draw out additional information.

However, trying to memorise and recall a big list of follow-up questions can paralyse us or make us come across as formulaic. Fortunately, there's an easier way of asking Active Listening questions to suit the current moment.

And as a kick-start, you’ll get a cheat-sheet of 6 bonus Active Listening questions (plus examples) to boost your conversations even more.

How to focus with 10 Active Listening questions
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Want Even Better Conversations?

Enter your email to receive easy, weekly listening tips that actually work, as well as other free training tips and downloads.

From time to time I'll launch paid products for subscribers wanting to go further, but will never spam you - I hate it with a passion!

And as a kick-start, you’ll get a cheat-sheet of 6 bonus Active Listening questions (plus examples) to boost your conversations even more.

How to focus with 10 Active Listening questions

An Easy Way to Ask Follow-up Questions

Firstly, make a point of reading through all the questions in the above lists and think about how you could have used them in some of your recent conversations. This process will give you some ideas of how to customise them to your own types of conversations.

It will also help you become familiar with Active Listening questions so that they more readily come to mind during discussions.

Secondly, simply ask open-ended questions about any of the speaker’s words and non-verbal cues that pique your attention. [1]  

Important: Make sure that these questions keep the conversation focused on the speaker and their thoughts. Don't divert the conversation onto you and your ideas (click here to read about support and shift responses).

Also, don’t impulsively blurt out these questions. Doing this can cause your discussion partner to permanently lose their train of thought. Instead, hold them until the speaker has finished their current thought. Then you won't cut off any important information. And by holding off, that information may actually answer your question too. [2]

I find that this approach helps make the Active Listening process flow more naturally and conversationally.

It's Okay and Even Essential to Ask Follow-up Questions

Some people feel reluctant to ask questions as though they are somehow prying into the speaker's private life. Consequently, they just let curious and ambiguous statements slide by without exploring them.

However, there’s a wealth of information lying just below these surface-level statements. As we've discussed, when drawn out, this information can dramatically increase our understanding of the discussion topic and lead to a much more meaningful conversation.

So go for it.

Ask those follow-up questions.

It's completely okay to probe deeper, within reason, even when the speaker appears to be annoyed by or impatient with our questions. 

The key motive to keep in focus is that we’re not being nosey. Our goal in this Step 3 of the Active Listening process to gain enough information to adequately understand the speaker's perspective. And asking respectful, tactful and insightful questions is the only way to obtain that information.

One final thought. Don’t interrogate the speaker with question after question. Your discussion will become intense and very quickly end. Instead, ask a few questions and then allow the discussion to flow naturally into steps 4 and 5 (‘Feeding Back’ and ‘Utilising’). This will keep the dialogue healthy, with everyone equally sharing the roles of listener and speaker.

Putting It All Together

There are moments in every discussion when we need to seek more information from the speaker. At these junctures we move from trying to hear the total meaning of the speaker’s message (Step 2) to asking follow-up questions in this step (Step 3).

In practice, you’ll cycle between Step 2 and Step 3 until you think you sufficiently understand the speaker’s message from their perspective. Then you can move onto confirming your understanding through feedback in Step 4.

What impact have follow-up questions had on your discussions? Any satisfying, surprising or unexpected results? Tell us about them in the comments below.


Notes

  1. 1
    Non-verbal cues include gestures, facial expressions, posture, tone of voice, volume and rate of speech.
  2. 2
    If interrupting is a problem for you, then here's a tip. Keep in mind that you are firstly the listener, and that you are seeking to better understand your discussion partner. You aren’t the speaker - that comes later in the Active Listening process (i.e. Step 5). Simply being aware of your role as listener will help you to resist interrupting.
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About the Author

Hello, I’m Andrew Ward and I’m the Kiwi guy writing most of the stuff on this website. You can read more about my story here.

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