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Primary and Secondary Questions Part I

by May L

What is A Primary Question?

Primary questions introduce topics or new areas within a topic and can stand alone even when taken out of context.

"How did you become interested in veterinary medicine?"

"Are you planning to specialize in large or small animals?"

"Tell me about your most challenging time in the pathology lab?"

Secondary questions attempt to discover additional information following a primary or secondary question, so they are often called probing, or follow-up questions. They make no sense if asked without connection to a previous question. Imagine someone beginning an interview or topic by asking "What's your best estimate?" or "Tell me more about that" when you have not replied to a question.

Secondary questions may be open or closed. They permit you to dig deeper into areas and discover what interviewees may be implying or avoiding in answers. They are essential when a respondent does not respond to a question or appears to be giving incomplete, superficial, vague, suggestible, irrelevant, or inaccurate answers.

Types of Secondary Questions Part I

Silent Probes

Use a silent probe when an answer is incomplete or the respondent seems hesitant to continue. Remain silent for a few moments and use appropriate nonverbal signals such as eye contact, a head nod, sitting back in a chair, or a gesture to encourage the person to continue.

Silence shows interest in what is being said and respect for the answer and the respondent. An interview may become less defensive if you communicate disbelief, uncertainly, or confusion through a tactful, silent probe rather than words. An exchange might go like this:

Interviewer: Why did you leave the scene of the accident?

Interviewee: It was in a dangerous neighbourhood late at night.

Interviewer: (silence)

Interviewee: As you've already discovered, I've had several accidents since coming to campus. I panicked.

Nudging Probes

Use a nudging probe if a silent probe fails or words seem necessary to get at what is needed. This question literally nudges the interview to reply or to continue with an answer. The nudging probe is usually simple and brief, such as the following:

I see, Go on, Yes?, And?, So?, and Uh-huh?

A common mistake is the assumption that all questions must be multiple-word sentences. Instead of urging the respondent to continue through a simple verbal nudge, we ask a lengthy probing question that stifles the interchange or a primary question that open up a new area or topic, the opposite of what is needed. Valuable information may remain undetected.

Clearinghouse Probes

A clearinghouse probe is an essential tool for discovering whether a series of questions has uncovered everything of importance on a topic or issue. Clearinghouse questions encourage respondents to volunteer information you might not think to ask about and to fill in gaps your questions have missed.

This probing tool literally clears out an area or topic, such as the following:

"Anything else you think I should know before the meeting this morning?"

"What have I missed?"

"Did you see or hear anything else?"

"Before we move on to another issue, is there anything we have not covered on the budget?"

A good clearinghouse probe enables you to proceed to the next topic or series of questions, confident that you have gotten all important information. No one can anticipate or plan for all information a party might be willing to reveal.

What is not asked may be more important than what is asked.

To Part II.

Image Credits:Worshiphim, Ze Misanthrope, Bachlakoff


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About the Author

About: My interests include geography, philosophy, good food and the arts. The complex art of communication fascinates me. I also enjoy my daily dose(s) of coffee!

Last Updated At Dec 07, 2012


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