A communication technique you may have heard of before is asking probing questions.

Often, when you engage in a discourse that has a question-and-answer format, the person answering the questions will give surface-level replies – answers that don’t dive deeply into a subject or topic, that are limited to a word or a short phrase.

Probing questions help the interviewer or question-asker pull more complex thinking out of the subject(s), inspiring them to elaborate on the initial answer.

An Example of a Conversation Using a Probing Question

teacher and student conversation

Image: CC BY-SA 2.0, Wolf Gang, via flckr

Here’s a good example: Imagine an English teacher asking her students about the Hemingway novel, The Old Man and the Sea. She’s looking to engage her students in a deep analysis of the novel’s themes.

Teacher: “What is the goal of the main character at the outset of the novel?”

Student: “To catch a fish.”

This answer is surface-level. It describes what the character in the book was doing but doesn’t go further into motivation or underlying tensions.

In this situation, the teacher will ask probing questions to pull a deeper discussion out of her students.

For instance, she may ask the student or the class, “Is that all there is to it?”

This prompts the students to think harder about the initial question and reach for a deeper meaning.

According to the School Reform Initiative, all probing questions have a few things in common. They all should:

  • Leave the door open for multiple possible responses – there’s no single “right” answer
  • Encourage critical thinking or approaching a problem from a new perspective
  • Challenge assumptions
  • Require more careful thought and a slower response
  • Put the power of solving the problem or answering the question into the responder’s hands

15 Probing Questions to Use in Conversations and Interviews

Probing questions don’t have to be limited to the classroom – you can use them in a variety of situations to help deepen conversations and interviews.

interview using probing questions

Image: CC BY-SA 2.0, Amtec Photos, via flckr

Use them to get to know someone better more quickly, to pull a shy person out of their shell, to make a discussion more meaningful, or to get the conversation firing on all cylinders.

1. “What do you mean by that?”

This question encourages the responder to explain the meaning behind their words, especially if their initial answer to a preceding question was insufficient, short, or hard to understand.

2. “Can you relate your answer to XYZ?”

When you want to draw a comparison between two topics or ideas, you can use this question to direct the responder’s attention to that connection and think about it critically.

3. “Why do you agree/disagree?”

If the responder answers questions with a simple “yes” or “no,” you can ask this question to get a more thorough, thoughtful response.

4. “Can you elaborate on that?”

Similar to question number 1, this question challenges the responder to go deeper with their answer. It essentially gives them more license to say whatever they want about the topic at hand.

5. “What are you assuming?”

Some people hold so tightly to their assumptions, they eventually stop seeing the world any other way. This question jolts them out of that mindset, prompting them to check their preconceived notions and consider other perspectives.

6. “What are your reasons for thinking that way?”

Sometimes, people will give an answer to a question automatically, without much thought. This question, in turn, asks the respondent to dig deeper into the “whys” behind their initial answer.

7. “Could you give some examples?”

Examples help the respondent clarify the meaning of their initial response to a question, both for you and for themselves.

8. “Could you tell me more about X?”

This question subtly redirects the conversation. You focus on a point or topic the other person only briefly touched on, then ask them to expand on it.

9. “What makes you feel that way?”

Sometimes probing questions are helpful when the respondent(s) have a hard time verbalizing what they mean or what they feel about a subject. This question helps draw them out.

10. “So, what I hear you saying is X. Is that right?”

This question helps make sense of what another person is saying. You repeat what you think they meant, then they’re free to correct you, as needed, to clarify their meaning.

11. “You mentioned XYZ. Could you tell me more about that?”

This is similar to question 8 but phrases it in a different way. It shows the other person you’re listening but gently redirects their attention to a different place.

12. “You just told me about X. Can you tell me about Y?”

If someone is getting off topic, this response/question is helpful for steering them back to the main subject.

13. “Is that all there is to it?”

This question is like a hint to the respondent that there’s more to the topic at hand than meets the eye. This is a nudge to get them to see farther and deeper.

14. “How is X different from Y?”

Often, drawing comparisons between two topics can make both clearers by underscoring their similarities and differences.

15. “Where did you…?”, “When did you…?” (Follow-Up Questions)

Follow-up questions beginning with “where,” “when,” or “why” are great for getting more details from a person. Example:

Q: Where did you go on vacation?

A: France.

Q: Where in France did you go?

A: Paris.

Q: What did you enjoy about Paris?

A: Well, a lot of things. First of all…

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