Want to hear some surprising numbers?
A recent survey showed that 92% of non-native English-speaking business professionals say that communicating in English is important for their jobs. Of course, it makes sense that almost everyone says that English is important for business.
However, the same survey showed that only 7% of these professionals feel that they have the English skills necessary for business success.
Some of these people may have had only basic English skills, but they needed to advance their skills. Other people might have had advanced English skills, but lacked confidence in their skills.
How can these people, who lack English skills or confidence in their skills, understand business presentations and take leadership roles in meetings?
The answer: Learning key English questions in business situations.
There are other things to learn, but learning how to ask and understand questions will quickly advance anyone’s business and language skills. When someone asks you a question during a meeting, you will know how to respond. Better yet, you will know how to ask the important questions that help meetings, projects and interviews to move forward.
It is critical to ask questions in a way that gets the information you are looking for in a business meeting while not creating misunderstandings.
Read on and discover how just three simple question types can add to your productivity in your next English-language business meeting.
Oh, and here is some good news for you. I am sure that you are already familiar with these three question types. All you have to do is learn how to apply them to business meetings.
3 Types of Business English Questions That Start Productive Conversations
1. Open-ended Questions
You know that a question is open-ended when you hear one that begins with the question words “who,” “what,” “when,” “where” and “how.”
These questions require people to give an answer that goes beyond simply saying, “yes” or “no.” Here are some examples.
Let’s say that you are trying to get people to come up with ideas. Then try asking questions like these:
- “What goals are we trying to accomplish?”
- “How can we improve this process?”
- “What options do we have?”
- “Why have we seen such a downturn in sales this quarter?”
- “How can we increase our sales in the next quarter?”
- “What suggestions do you have for increasing sales?”
- “What problems might we face?”
Once you get a list of ideas—for example, a list of goals or sales strategies—you may want to narrow the list down to the best options. Do that by asking a question similar to these, using the question word “which”:
- “Which goals should we be trying to accomplish this quarter?”
- “Which sales strategies will be the most effective?
Maybe you want someone to give you their opinion about something that does not necessarily generate a list. If so, try asking something like the following questions:
- “What is your reaction to that?”
- “What is your opinion on this issue?”
- “How does that relate to our main objective?”
- “What do you think about bringing in a marketing consultant to help us find a way to improve our sales?”
- “What do you think about the new product design?”
One thing to remember about open-ended questions is that you ask them to get people to talk, but you do not know how long their answer will be. So if you are running the meeting, make sure you set a time limit so that people do not go on, and on, and on.
2. Closed-ended Questions
When you ask a closed-ended question, the responses you will usually get are “yes” and “no.” There is also a chance that someone will say “maybe” or “possibly” if they are uncertain, and they may also provide an explanation about why they are uncertain.
Use these questions when you are trying to save time by getting a quick response or take a vote on an issue.
Specific situations may include times when you want to move on to the next step in a process, finish a discussion, obtain specific information or move the group towards making a unified decision.
Ready for some examples?
- “Then do we all agree that this is the best choice?”
- “Have we covered everything?”
- “Are we ready to move on, then?”
- “Is everyone ready to put their full support behind this solution?”
- “Do we need to wait for Jim’s return before making a final decision?”
- “Can everyone spare another 30 minutes so that we can leave with a final decision?”
Using closed-ended questions comes with three warnings, though.
1. Choose the timing of closed-ended questions and the number you ask wisely. Asking too many of these questions can frustrate the meeting participants or cause them not to come forward with ideas.
2. Realize that such questions may move the group in a direction that you want to go, but the group may not agree with your direction. If enough people seem to agree, others with valid points that are opposed to your ideas may simply go along saying “yes” because they are in the minority.
3. Asking this type of question using the wrong tone (such as a negative or impolite tone) can create a negative meeting atmosphere or cause the meeting participants to become defensive. They might think that you are trying to force them to agree with your ideas.
3. Rhetorical Questions
A rhetorical question is one that people already know the answer to. So, why should you ever ask one?
Well, this question type helps make a point or show that you are right about something. People often use them to make an argument about something they want others to agree with.
What do these questions look like? Here are some examples.
- “Do we want to have a good Christmas season or not?”
- “Wouldn’t it be great if we increased sales this season and proved the analysts wrong?”
- “Isn’t Mary a great addition to our team? Don’t you love the way she always comes to meetings prepared? She cuts right to the chase, doesn’t she? Wouldn’t it be great to have more people on our team like her?”
Of course the answer to all of these questions is, “yes.” Who does not want to increase sales or have a great team member that helps everyone be more productive?
Combining the 3 Question Types
Now in reality you are probably going to mix things up at times. For example, if you want to learn about something, you can use a combination of open-ended and closed-ended questions. For example, let’s say you are leading a meeting about improving your company’s relationships with its customers. Start by asking this open-ended question:
“How can we increase our loyal customer base?”
After you have heard ideas from people in the meeting, you can compliment them on their ideas and then ask a closed-ended question to see if anyone else has opinions or ideas to share.
“All of those ideas are great. Does anyone have anything else to add?“
Maybe you will find yourself in a situation where you really want to avoid misunderstandings. This is another situation where you would use a combination of closed-ended and open-ended questions. First, use the open-ended question to probe and find out what the problem is.
“How do you know that this is the best form of security for our system?”
Once you have heard the explanation, you can switch to a closed-ended question to confirm that you have understood everything correctly.
“…So let me make sure I got this right. Are you saying that we should…?”
After you ask this question, the person with the idea about the security system should either answer “yes” to confirm that you understood correctly, or answer “no” and explain which parts you did not understand.
If you are trying to get information, kind of like a detective, you may start with closed-ended questions and move towards more open-ended questions.
You: “I heard that we’re receiving complaints about the new cell phone. Is that right?”
Employee A: “Yes, it is.”
You: “How many people have complained so far?” (open-ended)
Employee A: “One hundred.”
Employee B: “You know how word of mouth is. Once a few people start posting their complaints online, everyone is going to be looking for the same problem with their phones.”
You: “What do you think we should do to resolve the problem?” (open-ended)
Employee A: “Well I think we should…..”
You: “Do you have an opinion on this, Employee B?” (closed-ended)
Employee B: “Yes. In my opinion, we should…”
You: “So, if I’m hearing this right, I think we all agree that we should… Right?” (closed-ended)
Employees A and B: “Yes, that’s right.”
Sticking with the basics of the 3 question types will help you add value to all of your English-language business meetings.
Your ability to form questions and understand what questions you need to ask is only going to be as good as your Business English vocabulary. So, take some time to improve that.
Worried because you’re a beginner? There is no need to be worried. You can learn to master the business English questions you need to be successful in your next English-language meeting either on your own or by taking an online course.
Are you worried that you can speak, but need some real-world listening practice? That is a valid concern and an easy issue to address. Try listening to podcasts and business programs on TV: CNN, the BBC, Bloomberg and CNBC are examples of networks that carry business news.
You can also watch English-language videos about everyday business situations on FluentU.
Good luck and enjoy!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It recommends examples and videos to you based on the words you’ve already learned. You'll have a truly personalized experience.
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