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Techniques > Questioning > Probing

Spot the signals | Clarify the detail | Avoid the traps | See also


When questioning someone, you may want at times to get into deeper detail about some particular issue or problem. 

For example the other person may have indicated that they cannot make a decision today. This could be because they have an objection or simply that there is more information for you to discover, such as the process by which they make decisions.

Spot the signals

Before you start probing, you must spot the signals they are sending that there is more here than meets the immediate eye. Things to look for include:


What we say is often severely abbreviated from what we intend or think. We censor our thoughts or assume that things are already known. This can come out in vague words or statements that signal that there is more here.

For example if they say "I don't know" may indicate uncertainty or doubt. What don't they know? How did they get to 'not knowing'? 


The other person may well have made decisions which imply an evaluation or judgment of some kind. Either they or someone else has made a decision which can be surfaced and explored for weaknesses.

For example, if a person says "that wouldn't work", then you could explore who decided this. 

Clarify the detail

Initially, you may have heard some brief comment or two that made you realize that there is more here to discover.

Use searching questions

Use questions that lead them to tell you more about the area of interest. This may use closed questions for ask specific details and open questions to encourage them to ramble

Who? When? What? Where? Why? How? are all probing questions that can help you dig down into further detail. Using these powerful questions is covered in further detail at the 5W1H page.


A simple way of eliciting further information is just to repeat the key phrases they used about which you want more information.

Them: Afterwards, he whispered to me and I wasn't sure what to say.
You: He whispered to you?
Them: Yes, he said I was very nice.


A non-verbal probe can also be used, for example by raising your eyebrows and tilting your head. This shows you are interested in a particular point and they may give you more detail without you having to say anything.

Make it easy

Make it easy for them to answer. Be nice. Be casual.

Slip the questions in without them noticing. For example you can use assumption in questions to suggest that the problem already exists. You should also beware of 'leading the witness'.

The Columbo Technique may also be used to put them at their ease and then elicit the answer you want without them realizing they have been probed.

See also

Probing questions, Socratic questioning, Chunking questions

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