over 3 years ago by Mark Scully

Webinar Recap: The Art and Science of Powerful Questions

Recap Webinar Powerful Questions

Last month we took our monthly Recruitment Think Tank meetup online by hosting a webinar with Oksana Afonina on 'The Art and Science of Powerful Questions'. 

As questioning is at the core of the interviewing process, this workshop focused on offering practical tips on improving questioning skills, insights on the architecture of powerful questions, and real-life case studies of dos and don'ts of interviews. 

Whether you're a recruiter (agency or in-house) or hiring manager, this webinar will help you improve the quality of interviews and lead to better conversion rates of candidates to hires.

You can watch the full recording here:


Video Transcription

Hello, everyone. Good afternoon. Chloe, thank you for the introduction. I'm excited to be here and especially excited because this was postponed for it for a couple of times. So, this makes it very special for me. Today, I would like to talk about powerful questions drawing from my experience in the business. As Chloe mentioned, I was in sales for a very long time, which is all about asking questions when you work with clients and partners. And also obviously from my coaching experience, I would like to share some of the concepts, a bit of theory to hopefully help you to tune up your questioning style if you're a recruiter, a hiring manager, or if you're a candidate. So, if we look into to interviewing process, there are really three parties involved who communicate between each other. And important to understand that all of them have different goals in the process.

So, hopefully, the final goal is to fill an open role, but of course, everybody on the stage comes to this process from a different background and with different expectations. So, client or a hiring manager, of course, they need to hire a person who will be the great fit for the team who had a certain experience, who is ready to do certain tasks, or accomplish projects. Candidates on their side are looking for many different things. It can be a step in their career. It can be a job with a work-life balance. It can be joining a specific team or a company with a culture.

So, as you can see already here, we have two sites who may be looking for the same thing as in the open role, but they are coming from different perspectives. And of course, in the middle of this process is the recruiter who is connecting these two parties. And today, I'd like to talk around the questioning that if you are a recruiter or a hiring manager, you can ask about the role, not only to candidates, but also to a hiring manager, to better understand what is the expectations and who is the perfect person we're looking for.

So, again, like going back to interviews, the question is like so whose job is to make it a good fit. So, is it the candidate who is supposed to look for a best-fit job and for the best job description or is the process of unveiling what the candidate has to offer? My take on this, it's both sides, but again, today's conversation is what you, as a recruiter, can do to uncover this. 

For me, the solution for this is really powerful questioning. So, the interview is all about asking questions, but what makes them powerful? So, the definition of a powerful question is a reflection of our listening and understanding the other's person perspective. So, I would say this is key here because we are coming to interview when we talk to a candidate, or if we talk to a hiring manager about what they are really looking for, their experience and their needs, we come from their perspective.

And if to look a bit further on this, this suggests that you listen, you paraphrase, you understand, and then what comes next is a powerful question, which really helps to yield some clarity and elicit some insight. So, what does it mean on a practical level? How can you recognize when the question is powerful, when it's not powerful, when it's weak, or whatnot? 

So, first of all, powerful questions, they always intended to help receivers. So, when we ask a question, we want the person to bring out their best, to bring out their strengths, to bring out their potential. So, the question is supposed to help them to do this. The second signal for recognizing powerful question is that it creates energy. Now, we're all in an online world. Most of the first screening's happening over the phone or video calls. So, you can notice yourself whenever the person is energized, either it's the body language, or it's the speed of speech, or some emotion coming into the conversation.

So, this definitely means that there is some energy and that your question created it. Powerful questions, they always cultivate inside. So, again, I'm talking from the interview perspective, we always lean on CVs and what the candidate already outlined in the CV. So, obviously, asking questions that are kind of repetitive or cover most of the topics in the CV are not very insightful. So, powerful questions, again, they allow to bring out something new, and perhaps open up some of the topics or bring something that was between the lines. So, they should cultivate inside. And the last thing is that powerful questions, they don't really have any hidden agenda. So, depending on the things that you're looking for in the candidate, sometimes we may be looking for some tricky questions or maybe the CV is not too clear, but it's important to recognize that we're coming from a very positive intent whenever we are asking these powerful questions.

So, kind of to explain it on a bit deeper level, I would encourage you to read up a bit about the appreciative inquiry. So, I found this comic, which I think illustrates it the best. Appreciative inquiry is a concept used in coaching and we lean heavily on it because what I mentioned previously, the question is coming from the best intentions, the same is true for appreciative inquiry. So, wherever we are asking people, we're inquiring them of something, we are looking from a positive perspective. So, coaching is generally based on an idea that the person is wholesome, that the person has potential, that the person has all the strengths to accomplish any goals they planned for themself. So, the same, I would suggest you use this approach in your interviewing to come from an asset-based view rather than from a deficit focus. You will see how it will change the dynamics in the conversation.

Of course, there are some very practical steps you can take. So, these bits of theory, all good, all clear, I hope. And what does it mean when we actually start asking questions? So, all questions, they all have very clear, I would say, architecture. So, the first part of the architecture is really how powerful is the beginning of the question, what question type to say you're using. So, the least powerful are questions that start with which or yes or no questions, so-called closed questions. So, the reason why they're less powerful is that they don't really offer any additional insights. So, whenever you're asking the question, yes or no, you're either confirming or not whatever you already thought about this person or assumed. The same goes about the question starting with which. So, what they do, they merely help you to clarify some minor details.

So, generally, if you want your questions to be really powerful and strong, avoid using this. Probably here is best to mention that there is no one perfect and the best question. Of course, a conversation is a flow. And depending on the context and what's happening in the conversation, it may be appropriate to have a closed question or question starting with which, but this is kind of just a rule of thumb. Next, we are looking at the questions that are starting from who, where, when.

These questions are considered more powerful, because they're usually open-ended and they usually allow us to bring some additional details into whatever you're inquiring. So, either about other people that you can then follow up and check some details or a bit more context, and some colour, and some details to the situation or some facts that you are inquiring. So, this is kind of in the hierarchy of all the questions, this would be on the second level. And the last level, the most powerful, the questions that are starting from why, how, and what, because they allow the person to open up the most their thinking process, and also they're much more open-ended, and they're not determined as in like what you're looking for in the end.

So, they allow the person to really guide the conversation and to answer them and move it into the direction that they feel is fit. I put a little asterisk here next to the why question because there is actually quite a bit of a debate that a why question can elicit a bit of a defensive response. So, I would recommend looking for where you put this question and how it's framed. Again, it can be very appropriate to the conversation and the context that you are having, but we will look a bit later into just some examples when maybe they can make a person feel a bit like on a defensive side. So, yeah, generally, when you think about the questions you're asking, it's totally fine to have questions from different buckets, but just be aware that the last three ones, they would be the ones that will bring you the most of all the colour about the person you're talking to.

The second kind of layer or important point about the powerful questions is the scope of your inquiry. So, there is a little approach you can use during your interview. You can zoom in and zoom out during the conversation to uncover some higher-level topics or some higher-level general ideas that the person is having.

And then to zoom in, to dive a bit deeper in the details. So, an example of this, just for your consideration, is a question what do you love about product management? What is your career aspiration? So, these questions are very high level. They are very general, not necessarily they're about your company or the open role that you are discussing. They allow a person to really show themself and show their maybe some deeper passions or motivations. And then to make it a bit more relevant to the topic that you're discussing or specific role you're interviewing for, you can zoom in and add a bit more colour here. So, if we talk about the product management role, we can ask, "So, how would you go about improving our current product or our current situation with the product we're having," or whatever is the specific task that you have for this role. And the same goes to the question about the career motivation. So, like what actually the person is doing at the moment in terms of advancing these career goals that they have.

So, when we have these two areas in consideration, what we really can do, and what I encourage you to do after this webinar, is to review the questions that you normally ask them to see how they can be maybe tweaked a little bit or improved, and from which side you can, you can make them a bit more powerful. So, just a few examples that I heard from either candidates who were preparing for interviews and we were working with them on their CV, and then obviously the coaching conversation, but also from my side as a hiring manager. So, one of the questions you can receive during the interview, why are you looking for a new job? Quite the typical question when somebody is applying. So, here is the thing about the why, which can make a person defensive. So, it's kind of you have to justify or explain yourself. And to make this a bit more powerful and also a bit more positive, you can paraphrase it into, "What are you looking for in your next career move?"

So, again, this will answer the question why the person is changing, and also it will make the whole kind of tone of conversation on a bit of positive move, and also will help you to follow up with maybe some secondary questions on this. Another example of questions that are usually targeting specific, so to say, gaps in the CV. So, perhaps the person was not employed for a while, or perhaps you have some questions around short employment times, or any sort of usual things, so to say a bit weird maybe, or to be alerted. So, again, my question can be why something happened in your CV. And again, this makes people defensive. So, I had couple of clients in my coaching who were really worried that this question may come during the interview, for example, when they had the gap year, or they were moving with a partner, because the partner got the job and they didn't yet, and then they had the gap.

So it's like they felt really anxious about how to explain it. Although, as you can see the intentions behind this, and obviously the life situation was completely normal. So, instead of making a person explaining all that, we can ask, "Help me understand what was happening during this time?" Or like, "How did it all work out that something that isn't there for you?" Again, this coming from a much more positive perspective and makes your question powerful, because this is an appreciative inquiry, and the person will feel a bit more open and comfortable with you. And again, it will allow you to advance your conversation into perhaps in your area. Another question, which lots of candidates and also lots of articles are written about these questions, "What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?" How to answer them. Everyone feels usually anxious about them.

So, like if I tell you, "This is my strengths, and then what do I say about my weaknesses?" So, a confusing point. What you can do here is to paraphrase it, "What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?" So, this will uncover what people think is their strengths, because they will naturally connect... So, for example, someone thinks that analytics is a strong side of them, they will say that analytics is a fulfilling part of their job. So, this is how you can come to the point that you're looking for from a completely different perspective and again, empowering the person you're talking to. And one last small example, when you're asking about a specific role, so here's an example from... I found it really strong when I was interviewing for one of the roles. So, the question was about specific roles.

"So, what attracted you to this sales manager role?" And the way the recruiter asked that I found was really good is that, "What attracts you to a leadership role?" generally. So, this is where the person can open up about why they want to with the team, what is their approach for leadership, and so on. So, this completely changed the tone of the conversation, and it actually felt more like a conversation other than like a job interview. 

So, a few things that I call tricks, but obviously they're coming from the theory of practice of coaching, and generally all sorts of the powerful conversations. But something that you can be using within the interview, just like spicing it up, just adding a bit more even power and discovery into your questions. So, the first one is a very simple question, "What else?"

So, this question can be used as a follow-up for literally any question you have, and you can ask it a few times as a followup, and it will allow you to uncover more and more and more. So, this question is super simple, but I would say it creates magic because it allows people to go to different layers that they were not maybe considering. So, for example, you say like, "So, what do you like about this role? And what else? And what else?" And then you will elicit this kind of more of the feedback and also for the person, a bit more insight and discovery. So, a very easy one to adopt as a habit.

The second one is... I find really interesting, and again, you can see how we can fit it in either the roles you have kind of at the moment open and you're actively interviewing is asking a candidate or a person to score something. So, for example, you need to understand how confident a person feels on certain skills. So you can ask them how confident, "Do you feel in XYZ technology on the score from one to 10?" So, this will give you a bit better understanding, or one to five, it can be any score, but the kind of the point here that you just have one extra tool for rating that candidate.

The third trick you can use is a kind of a bit similar to scoring, but it's just to make a certain choice even a bit more defined, which I call A/B choice. So, when a person gives you some uncertain answer or maybe you are looking for a bit more precision, you can exactly state it in that way. You can say, "So, if you would have to choose between A, A/B?" So would it be either some things within the role or some questions around, I don't know, compensation, or team culture, or whatever. This, again, will let you understand what is the deeper motivation. So, the person, what would be more important for them in their role, what they are looking for, and so on. Very simple and very powerful.

And the last trick is probably for a bit more advanced users, so to say it needs a bit of practice and a bit more of patience, because sometimes it may feel a bit awkward. It's silence. So, I'm not talking here about awkward silence, but more about the silence when you give another person some time and space to follow up or perhaps add on some of the points they were talking about. So, for example, you ask the question and then you hear that the person is kind of still in the thinking process, so you just can stay silent for a couple of seconds and see what they will add on this and perhaps it will help you to follow up with the questioning as well.

So, yeah, and the last, but not least from my side, and this is the feedback that I get from all the parties involved in the interviewing process is the best interview always feels like a conversation and not a checklist. I do understand we're all busy, we all have lots of roles to fill, lots of integral interviews to go through, but hopefully, with a bit of practice and some of these small tips and tricks, you can make your interviewing conversations more like a flow and not just a checklist to go through it.