Effective Questioning: What Every Business Analyst Should Know

Asking questions effectively doesn’t always come naturally. For most, it’s a skill that needs to be perfected. Stakeholder interviews are effective platforms for posing questions on issues and expectations. They also provide an opportunity for business analysts to seek clarification on existing requirements. What do you need to know to get the right results?

Here are some tips to get you started:

Exploit the Power of the Pause - Your silence may prompt the interviewee to provide more information so don’t be anxious to fill up those precious silent moments with questions. Unless it's obvious your interviewee has finished speaking, he may well be drumming up some more insightful responses. Be aware that you may not get the answers you need if you talk more than you listen.

Don't Ask Leading Questions – By asking leading questions, you’re fishing for specific answers. The whole point of asking questions is to find out the interviewee’s requirements so don't presume to know what he or she wants. The interview session should be approached as an avenue for discovery.  

For example, instead of asking: Collecting accurate customer information will improve sales, won’t it? , you may get a more thoughtful and accurate answer if you ask: "How do you think sales can be improved?".

Interject Politely When Necessary - Where it's obvious that your interviewee is going off in another direction than you intended, don't hesitate to interrupt and provide clarification to your question. Great interviewers like Larry King interject politely when necessary to keep interview sessions on course.

Avoid Professional Jargon - Keep your questions as simple as possible so that you can get the responses you need. If you use professional jargon, there’s every likelihood your interviewee will not understand what you mean, and you’ll end up spending extra effort and time explaining yourself. Save valuable interview time by being as clear as possible.

Deal with Unanswered Questions - If your question was not directly or clearly answered, you can rephrase it and ask at a later time. It’s possible for interviewees to forget the question way before they have finished speaking and end up rambling. This can happen easily when you ask run-on questions (a stakeholder is faced with more than one question at once) e.g. "How do you define customer categories and how easy is it to categorize new customers?". The stakeholder may end up providing a response that doesn't sufficiently cover both aspects of the question or may even skip one and answer the other. Avoid using "and" as it usually leads to run-on questions.

Restate Answers in Your Own Words - Do this when you need clarification on your understanding of the interviewee's response. Sometimes, interviewees throw up vague or complex responses for whatever reason. Rephrasing based on your own understanding, and asking for validation will help you arrive at a clearer answer.

Ask if You Don't Know  - There's no point pretending you know something you don't. Most times, interviewees will be willing to answer your questions so, don’t be embarrassed to ask.

To get the right results, equate interview sessions to learning opportunities. This way, you'll get more insight into your stakeholders' real needs.

For more insights on effective questioning, view my post on Modern Analyst - What Every Business Analyst Can Learn From Journalism: The Art of Intelligent Questioning