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Why Do You Ask – How to Handle Inquiries More Effectively

Understanding the motive behind questions can show us How to Handle Inquiries Effectively.

Why do you ask? How to recognise the motive behind the question

You’ll probably have been on the receiving end of someone’s question and found yourself thinking, ‘Why do you ask?’ It’s a useful piece of wondering for a number of reasons. For a start, it prompts you to consider how you’re going to reply, and thoughtful answers generally make for more productive conversations. For another reason, a range of quite different motives might lie behind the inquirer’s question. An answer, which fails to take account of the motive behind the question, is a risky answer. It might be irrelevant, naive or unethical, an inappropriate, unguarded or unauthorised disclosure, or an opinion that is hasty, narrow or simplistic.

The importance of inquiry

Inquiry is one of the most important building blocks in constructing effective communications. It draws people into conversation. It elicits others’ inputs. It’s a potential connector, a means of engagement.

Raising people’s awareness that there can be different types of question is therefore a staple feature of communications training, a natural and useful part of any communicator’s skill-set. Unfortunately, as with so much training (as opposed to personalised development), there is a tendency to over-prescribe generalised advice rather than offer contextualised guidance.

A classic over-generalisation is the precept that open questions are good, whereas closed, leading or rhetorical questions are invariably bad. The reality is that the value of a particular question depends on its context, purpose and impact. An open question may be too unfocused to be useful for either its author or its receiver. A leading question might be a helpfully provocative way of inviting someone to consider a particular possibility and some of its implications.

A more reliable generalisation about questioning is that it is not necessarily neutral. There can be an agenda behind the question. More to the point, there often is.

But in order to uncover that agenda, the distinctions between open and closed, leading and rhetorical, don’t take us very far. They highlight the broad truth that a question might either be about finding out what you think or, quite oppositely, be an indirect way of letting you know what the questioner thinks (or wants you to think.) But where can we go from there? What else might tell us something about the real purpose behind a question?

What VoicePrint helps us understand about How to Handle Inquiries More Effectively

VoicePrint research has given us some answers. We take a close interest in how VoicePrint and the nine voices relate to other well-established models of personality and human behaviour. We do this because we want our users to get the maximum practical value from all of their diagnostics. Our research into the correlations between VoicePrint and John Holland’s model of vocational interests [Ref 1] has been particularly useful in revealing the different motivations that can be associated with the use of the inquiry voice.

Holland distinguishes six different vocational interests, effectively sources of motivation, and as many as four of these show strong, statistically significant correlations with the use of the Inquire voice. This is an important finding, because although individuals may combine more than one of these interests, pursuing different ones at different times, the motivations themselves are distinct.

What this means is that when people use Inquiry, they may be doing so for a range of quite different purposes. The Analytical interest uses it as a means of sense-making and problem-solving. The Caring motive uses it to find out what concerns others and how to help them. The Persuasive interest uses it to discover how others might most readily be influenced. The Creative motive uses it in the quest for difference and originality.

While it’s possible to regard some of these motives as ‘better’ or more legitimate than others, that itself is a matter of perspective. Considering it inappropriate ever to use Inquiry as a soft form of persuasion, for example, is both a value judgement and a limitation on a communicator’s repertoire.

Having said that, VoicePrint’s premise is that Inquiry has its greatest potential value (for discovery, connection and engagement) when it is used with an open mind, without being constrained by preconception. That does not mean that Inquiry becomes valueless or unproductive, when there is a particular motive behind its use. It does mean that it is important and helpful to recognise when and how a particular motive is shaping the impact and use of inquiry.

Yet again, it’s a case of not leaping to premature conclusions, not relying on automatic reflexes and not allowing our semi- or un-conscious sensitivities to distort our recognition of what is happening. What’s required is to be mindful (in the broadest sense of the word), alert to subtle differences, and able to distinguish different types of inquiry.

We need to notice.

So, what should we listen for? How can you hear beyond the interrogative form and pick up the motivation behind it? How can you ensure that your own intent is accurately heard?

Resources to help you put this into action

Here are two resources to help you. The first is a set of four practices. The second is a quiz, a set of questions designed to illustrate (and develop your capability to recognise) differently motivated inquiries. The answers, or at least my intention behind the question in each case, are given at the end. Like all interpretive skills, it takes time to acquire, but it quickly starts to repay the effort that goes into its development.

Fill out this form and we’ll send you the PDF immediately. 


Reference 1
Holland, John L, (1997) Making Vocational Choices: a theory of vocational personalities and work environments, 3rd edition, Psychological Assessment Resources Inc.

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