Probing Questions: Definition, Comparisons and Examples

Updated March 10, 2023

A person seated at a desk gazes thoughtfully out a window.

When attempting to understand new information, knowing how to ask the right questions is a valuable skill that can facilitate the process. Probing questions are designed to deepen the knowledge and understanding for the person asking the question as well as the person answering. The questions themselves provide depth and insight just as much as their answers.

In this article, we explain what probing questions are, compare them to clarifying questions, go over some of the situations where probing questions could be put to use and provide 20 examples of probing questions.

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What are probing questions?

Probing questions are designed to encourage deep thought about a specific topic. They are typically open-ended questions, meaning the answers are primarily subjective. Probing questions are intended to promote critical thinking as well as to get the person asked to explore their thoughts and feelings about a particular subject.

Related: What is Strategic Planning? Definition, Techniques and Examples

Probing vs. clarifying questions

Though closely related, clarifying questions and probing questions are fundamentally different in both nature and intent. Unlike probing questions, the answers to clarifying questions are based on facts. Clarifying questions are typically brief and are designed to clarify the subject being discussed. These types of questions often provide valuable information that allows others to ask more effective probing questions.

Some examples of clarifying questions are:

  • Is this what you said?

  • Did I summarize what you said correctly?

  • What criteria did you use?

  • What resources were used?

Related: SMART Goals: Definition and Examples

When should you use probing questions?

Probing questions can be put to use in a variety of different situations, including:

  • After a presentation

  • To promote critical thinking for students in a classroom setting

  • To ensure that you have an understanding of the entire story

  • When learning something new

  • If you feel that someone is avoiding divulging something

  • To gain insight into a person's thought process

  • When assessing the needs of a new client

  • To facilitate brainstorming of possible solutions

Related: 9 Best Questions to Ask Your Interviewer (With Video Examples)

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20 examples of probing questions

Here are some examples of probing questions:

1. Why do you think that is?

This type of probing question is seeking the opinions and beliefs of the other party. What led them to this conclusion? Why do they believe it's true?

2. What sort of impact do you think this will have?

More than feelings, this question is seeking a prediction. How will this particular situation affect the environment or others? Will the results have positive or negative consequences?

3. What would need to change for you to accomplish this?

Generally, development and growth require change. Instead of just thinking about solutions, this question is aimed to get others to think about the process and the sacrifices that would need to be made to successfully reach the proposed goal.

4. Do you feel that that is right?

Whether intended as an ethical question or to determine something's veracity, this question probes the other party to examine the conclusions that they have drawn.

5. When have you done something like this before?

In other words, do you have experience with this situation? Were you successful previously? This line of questioning targets a person's capabilities and track record as well as their ability to provide evidence-based solutions.

6. What does this remind you of?

Comparison is a powerful critical thinking tool that encourages you to make connections. It is through comparison and contrast that creative solutions can be developed to solve difficult problems.

7. How did you come to this conclusion?

Though a seemingly easy question, asking someone to reiterate their thought process can provide insight for both them and the questioner. This insight can be used to reverse engineer problems or even to recognize the patterns that were only picked up on subconsciously before.

8. What is your prediction?

Prediction can be a powerful tool. It combines knowledge with feeling, creating a hypothesis of sorts. Though you should avoid relying on them exclusively, they do provide a deeper understanding of a current situation because they force you to look ahead.

9. What was your intention?

Intent can differ greatly from delivery, which is why this question can be so informative. What was the plan? Did you stray from it? Did you discover a new train of thought that led you somewhere else?

10. What should you ask yourself to further your understanding?

In other words, now that you have this information, what new questions arise? This question is designed to dig deeper into an issue and encourage the exploration of all of its facets.

11. What is your biggest fear regarding this?

Worst-case scenarios can provide a great deal of insight. Though they are powerful tools for vocalizing and naming fears, they are also powerful for realizing that perhaps the fear is less scary than it sounded in your head. Either way, this type of question demands the person asked to look ahead.

12. What do you think is the best-case scenario?

Asking someone about a best-case scenario can be just as powerful as its counterpart. If everything goes as planned, what are we hoping to accomplish here? Is it worth it?

13. What do you think is at the root of the problem?

Every challenge has something that laid the foundation for it. Though this question can be philosophical at times, it can also provide a great deal of insight into what the actual issue is as well as how to address it.

14. What would we do if the opposite were true?

This question is designed to seek and provide perspective. If the situation were reversed, how would you handle it?

15. How do you know this to be true?

Probing questions are intended to challenge assumptions and beliefs. More than just to verify the truthfulness of the other party's claims, this question is asking how they reached those conclusions.

16. What are this situation's pros and cons?

When approaching situations, it can be easy to focus on either the positive or negative aspects. This inquiry asks the other person to examine and assess both sides.

17. What is the connection between these two things?

As we mentioned before, drawing connections is a great way to develop new and creative solutions. However, this question is designed to go a bit further to determine what that connection is and why it exists.

18. Is this problem unique to this organization?

In other words, are your competitors facing this challenge? What are you doing differently than them? This question urges the other party to gain perspective and look outside of their situation for insight and answers.

19. What are the long-term effects?

Though we commonly consider the effects of decisions and solutions, it's important to remember to look further than the immediate benefits.

20. What are the intangible effects?

Most effects become evident quickly. However, there are situations where the effects may not be as obvious. Are there any impacts that will escape immediate detection?

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