Questioning Skills

by Steve Roche

Deletions, distortions and generalisations

We create our individual model of the world – how it works, what motivates behaviour, what really matters and so on – from our experience, all of which is passed through our mental filters.

When it comes to perception, there are three main filters:

Deletion occurs when we overlook, tune out or omit. When we delete parts of our experience, either they fail to register or we discount them as unimportant.

Distortion is a personal prejudice that twists our perceptions. We amplify or diminish our experience, seeing it differently, as in a hall of mirrors.

Generalisation occurs when we reach a global conclusion based on one or two experiences, taking them as representative of a whole class and paying no attention to exceptions.


In one of the cases of Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Gregory asks, ‘Is there any other point to which you wish to draw my attention?’

‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night time,’ replies Holmes.

‘The dog did nothing in the night time!’

‘That was the curious incident,’ remarks Holmes.

From The Adventure of Silver Blaze by Arthur Conan Doyle

As in the case of the dog in the night time, deletions are conspicuous by their absence. For example:

‘People know enough about it.’

What does that sentence mean? To make sense of it, you could ask, ‘Which people exactly?’

What does the ‘it’ stand for? You would have to ask, ‘What exactly don’t they know enough about?’

And even the word ‘know’ is not very exact. To define the meaning, you’d have to ask, ‘How exactly do they know?’

Although it would be tedious to spell out everything in detail all the time, sometimes the details are crucial. When we don’t get them we assume them, often wrongly.

On occasions, the speaker may not be clear about what lies behind the statement. Your questions will force them to think back to their actual experience and be clearer about what they mean.

Sometimes the people are missing from a statement completely, for example:

‘Not enough is known about it.’

This is the passive voice, and is a good way of avoiding responsibility, as in the famous government statement: ‘Mistakes were made.’


One way we distort things is by taking processes and making them into things. A noun constructed in this way is called a nominalisation. Many of our most important concepts are nominalisations, including justice, education, choice and cooperation. The distortion is that these nouns are really verbs in disguise. For example, someone says:

‘This relationship isn’t working.’

Find out more about what the speaker means by turning this thing – this relationship – back into a process by asking, ‘How exactly are we not relating?’

The assumptions behind what people say bring us closer to their model of the world. Listen for these assumptions. Find them by asking yourself what else would have to be true for the sentence to make sense. For example:

‘Please don’t be as unreasonable as you were last time we discussed this’, assumes that you were unreasonable and that we have discussed this before.

‘Would you rather pay me now or later?’ assumes, of course, that you are going to pay me.

Why questions

A question beginning with why nearly always hides an assumption by diverting your attention from the assumption to the reason for it:

‘Why is this so difficult?’ assumes it is difficult in the first place. If you answer the ‘why’ question, you reinforce the assumption.


Generalisations are judgements which you may want to question by asking, ‘Who says?’ or ‘What evidence do you have for that statement?’

The key words here are all, never, always and every. These simplify our view of the world, and limit us by allowing no exceptions. For example:

  • I will never be able to do this.
  • No-one cares about my work.
  • You are always out when I need you.

The way to question these generalisations is to ask for the counter-example:

  • Am I always out?
  • Was there never a time when I was here?

If you have good rapport, you can simply express incredulity: ‘Never?!’ The speaker then hunts through their experience for exceptions.

Questioning the rules

Another example of generalisation is the way in which we set rules for ourselves and others with words such as ought, must, should, and got to. These may or may not have good reasons behind them. The way to find out is to ask ‘What would happen if I did not do those things?’ For example:

  1. ‘We must always get the financial report out by the first of the month.’

What would happen if we didn’t?

The word ‘must’ indicates rules that may or may not be legitimate.

  1. ‘Company policy is that we check in at the time clock at 9.00 and out at 5.00.’

What would happen if we didn’t?

‘Should’ offers an insidious way in which to limit our actions. ‘Company policy’ is a synonym for should. If people were not treated like machines, productivity might increase.

  1. ‘We never promote women to senior level.’

What would happen if you did?

Never alerts us to a generalisation. In the exceptions to a generalisation are the overlooked options of behaviours.

  1. ‘You cannot have three weeks’ holiday.’

What would happen if I did?

Use discretion when challenging another person’s language – this exchange could get you into trouble. Keep in mind both your short-term and long-term goals.

Key tip

Unless you ask the questions, the options go unexplored.