Monday, May 2, 2011

Asking and Answering Questions Effectively in a Public Forum

The latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Writers Association has a very interesting article about how to ask effective questions in public forms, and how to provide effective answers in return (1). It notes that often we are asked to sit though meetings and programs where we bemoan the fact that audience members ask long and seemingly pointless questions and in response receive even longer and less meaningful answers. We have all seen this happen, and we all sit and try not to squirm when it does. Beyond our discomfort, however, is a more important point: there is supposed to be a successful exchange of information and it has not occurred. Similar to writing, we need to communicate effectively. Krumm’s article provides an overview on making that happen. He provides an overview of 3 related topics in doing so.

First, he brings up the issue of understanding the different types of question. Krumm defines 3 types of questions one may see in a scientific setting. (1) The first is the Specific Question. These are questions which require a categorical answer, such as either yes or no, or a factual answer (and for whom the question usually starts with a wh, such as what, who, where, etc.). (2) Second is the Leading Question. This is an open-ended question requiring an element of analysis, synthesis or evaluation, and they require answers with more in-depth analysis and interpretation. (3) Finally, there is the Presupposition Question. These are questions with assumptions behind them, often critical in nature, and often begin with the word why. These often appear to be, and are, confrontational.

He then looks at asking effective questions. He suggests the following. (1) First, think about the question. Identify what it is you wish to know- broad information or specific. (2) Ask a precise question. This does not mean it must be short, but that it is formulated clearly so that the audience and the presenter easily understand it. (3) Stick to the topic at hand. Make sure your question is related to the discussion at hand. Do not introduce tangential topics. (4) Ask 1 question at a time. Too many questions can make it hard for the presenter to know how to answer and for the audience to follow. If you need to, ask if you can ask a follow-up question. (5) Be careful about “why” questions. These are seen as accusatory and put the presenter on the defensive. (6) Ask your question politely. You should never be rude or confrontational. This is also important when a presenter may have given incorrect information. Follow the Golden Rule. (7) Conversely, do not be overly complimentary; there is no need for a constant stream of praise to a presenter.

For those now in position to answer properly asked questions, Krumm suggests this: (1) Rehearse answers to obvious question. You know what you will be presenting, so anticipate the question you will get and be ready to answer them. (2) Clarify the rules (where appropriate). Let people know when and how you will answer questions. (3) Listen to the question and do not interrupt. Listening is a key skill, and don’t barge in out of impatience. (4) Repeat the question. Not everyone will have heard it. (5) Ask for clarification when necessary. You can politely ask when you are unclear as to what you are being asked. (6) Be honest. If you don’t know the answer, say so. (7) Give short and precise answers. Stick to the point, and remember others want to ask questions as well. (8) Don’t be defensive if the questions are hostile. This is hard to remember, but you can best defuse anger with calm. Remain courteous.

Note: I will be gone for much of next week, and will post again upon my return, May 16. Until then.

1. Krumm P. How to ask effective questions and provide effective answers in a public form. AMWA J 2011;26:21-22

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