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Trainer Talk

The Art of a Good Question

The Art of a Good Question


Communication is one of the most essential career skills in law enforcement—at least if you want to be successful in that career. And one of the keys to quality communication—both at work and at home—is asking good questions. At work, asking good questions makes good cases, improves outcomes, and may even save your life. At home, asking good questions can deepen and improve your relationships.

To use questions effectively, we must first understand a key principle: HOW you communicate impacts WHAT you communicate—and that “what” is a two-way street. Ask a better question and you are more likely to receive a better answer. Here are a few tips that have served me well in my own career:

  1. Understand the drawbacks of closed-ended (CE) questions. CE questions (Did you have a good day?) are great for quick information gathering, but the very nature of a CE question limits the scope of the communication, for both sides, to what the very narrow question invites. You’ll only get what you asked, and there is a risk that the emotion/intent behind the question will be misinterpreted by the other person. For these reasons, CE questions are best used sparingly, and preferably only in task-focused situations.
  2. Understand the benefits of open-ended (OE) questions. OE questions (How was your day?) are better for encouraging the other person to elaborate, which can produce much more and much better information. Another benefit is that while the other person is answering, you have an opportunity to think, plan, or observe (just be sure to really listen). OE questions can also allow you to connect on a deeper level, and when appropriate, portray a sense of caring—both of which can help you obtain better information and strengthen relationships.
  3. Calibrate your questions. Carefully choosing the words of the question can enhance the conversation in a positive way. By pointing the person toward the answer, emotion, or reaction you are seeking, you can guide the conversation in a productive direction. For example: “How can we solve this problem?” focuses the person on thinking about the problem, whereas “What does a successful resolution look like?” focuses the person on the resolution. Consider the end product and calibrate your question to that goal.
  4.  Use “what” and “how.” Avoid “why.” The most useful hack I have found for asking better questions is to simply reframe my questions to start with “what” or “how.” This simple hack can be used to turn a CE question (“Did you have a good day?”) into an OE question (“How was your day?”). It can also be used to calibrate questions. Starting a question with “why” puts the other person on defense, which almost always inhibits a constructive interaction. Instead, consider reframing the question with “how.” So, “Why did you do that?” becomes “How did that happen?” or “What caused you to do that?” It seems like nuance, but it can mean the difference between shutting down and opening up. 

Learning to use the many tools of the trade is vital to surviving and succeeding in a law enforcement career, and communication tools are no exception. No one is born a good communicator, but all of us can become one. As with all of your other skills, train regularly and improve daily.

Eric Snyder

Police Officer, Ames, IA

ASP Trainer since 2021