Your role in gathering information from others to draw out information from the individual that is critical to your understanding. Most of us are better at presenting our own point of view than we are at drawing out information from others.

A good name for this skill of gathering information from others is probing.

When you probe, you:

  • Get others involved and participating. Since probes are designed to produce a response, it’s unlikely the other person will remain passive.
  • Get important information on the table. People may not volunteer information, or the information they present may not be clear. Your probes help people open up and present or clarify their information.
  • Force yourself to listen. Since probes are most effective in a sequence, you have to listen to a person’s response.
  • Help improve communication on both sides of the table.

There are five ways to probe other people.

One of the most common ways of probing is to ask an open question, such as:

  • “Can you describe that more clearly?”
  • “Would you give me a specific example of what you mean?”
  • “What do you think we should do?”

The difficulty here is that if you ask too many of these the other person begins to feel like they are under interrogation.

A second, very effective way of probing is a pause. Stop talking. Let the other person speak; let them fill the silence.

A third way is to ask a reflective or mirroring question. For example, the person has just said, “What I really want is more variety in my work,” and you may respond by just reflecting back to them, “Variety?” The reflective question usually provides you with an expanded answer without you appearing to ask more questions. Of course, it is best used in conjunction with a pause. Reflective questions or statements focus on clarifying and summarizing without interrupting the flow of the conversation. They indicate your intent to understand the sender’s thoughts and feelings.

A fourth method that is particularly useful to make certain you are clear about what the individual has said is paraphrasing what has just been said, in your own words. “So if I understand you correctly, you…”

You can use this response to show that you want to increase the accuracy of your understanding of what has just been said. You may also want to use it to ensure the sender hears what he has just said. Finally, paraphrasing reassures the sender that you are trying to understand what he/she is saying.

The last method, most often used as a conversation is winding down, is the summary question. “You have tried ignoring the scent of your colleague’s cologne, you have talked with him about how it affects your allergies, and you have tried shutting your door to keep the scent from your workspace. None of these has worked and now you are asking me to intervene. Have I got it right?”