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​​​How Smart Internal Auditors Ask Smart Questions

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The best internal auditors know that there are times when we need to "break the rules" for conducting client interviews. Few skills are more essential for internal auditors than knowing how to ask the right questions. With effective questioning skills, we can build rapport, strengthen understanding, and encourage openness. Without these skills, we can damage working relationships or overlook essential information.

Even the world's best analytical skills are useless if we fail to uncover the information we need because of faulty questioning techniques. That's why most internal auditors receive formal training on how to conduct internal audit interviews. Training is essential because it can provide important rules regarding how to interview people.

But the very best internal auditors also know that there are times when we need to "break the rules" for conducting client interviews. You may have heard that internal auditors should strive to ask open-ended questions to keep conversations going and to gain additional insights. You may have heard that it's a good idea to start audit interviews on a light note, seeking agreement and keeping the tone positive. In general, these rules provide excellent advice. But in certain situations, following those rules can do more harm than good.

Open-ended — or Not?

Take, for example, the standard rule that open-ended questions work better than yes/no questions. That's usually correct, particularly when you have a candid, trusting relationship with your client and you plan to talk about nonthreatening subjects. But recent research indicates that it's important for questioners (regardless of profession) to assess whether a discussion is more cooperative or competitive in nature before asking questions.

A recent Harvard Business Review IdeaCast podcast offered the example of buying a used iPod. It pointed out that the results of an open-ended inquiry, such as "Tell me about the history of this iPod," might be very different than asking, "Has this iPod been damaged?" In "competitive" interviews or when a client seems evasive, open-ended questions may simply lead to lies by omission.

When Negative Is a Positive

Internal auditors generally are advised to maintain a positive, upbeat tone during audit interviews. Certainly, tone matters. And it's rarely helpful to sound accusatory or to telegraph anger when we meet with clients. But, at times, we need to temper the positive attitude with realism. Internal auditors need to ask difficult questions, and when the answer to a question is likely to be adversarial (when a deadline is going to be missed or a production estimate is overly optimistic, for example), some experts suggest framing the question pessimistically. If you ask, "That's not going to be on time, is it?" you are giving your client "permission" to be truthful by showing you understand the situation. The trick is to frame your question negatively — but to ask it in an empathetic, non-​accusatory manner.

Sequence Matters: Ask in the Right Order

It seems natural to start an audit interview with light, nonthreatening questions. Generally, this approach is recommended because it helps to put our clients at ease. But there are times when asking the easiest questions first can be a mistake. New research indicates that people are likely to respond more fully to questions if you lead off with your more sensitive and intrusive queries.

According to a report published in the Journal of Consumer Research, people were more willing to reveal sensitive information when questions were asked in a decreasing order of intrusiveness because subsequent questions feel relatively less intrusive. The researchers pointed out that, if you start with, "Have you ever had a fantasy of doing something terrible to someone?" then subsequently asking, "Have you ever called in sick to work when you were perfectly healthy?" becomes less intimidating. (I would not recommend starting an audit interview with either of these questions, but they make a good point.)

The danger is that starting a discussion with the toughest questions first can be hard on a client relationship. It's probably not a tactic you should use during the kick-off meeting for your next audit, but every time you plan to meet with a client, it's important to consider the best sequence for your questions.

Prepare More, Ask More

When we ask questions that we should already know the answers to, we waste everyone's time and risk aggravating our clients. However, while asking the wrong questions is a relationship-killer, most internal auditors could actually improve client relationships by asking more questions. According to research published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people who ask more questions are seen as more likable. Intelligent questioning can create a bond of trust and empathy that leads to better audit results.

In a recent issue of Harvard Business Review, two researchers who study negotiations and organizational behavior pointed out that people hold back their questions too often, fearing that they might seem ill-informed or offensive. But asking questions "spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and performance improvement, it builds rapport and trust among team members," according to the researchers. "And it can mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards."

The researchers weren't writing specifically about internal audit, but that sounds a lot like what we all strive to accomplish.

The point is that, even when we think we know the essentials of effective interviewing skills, there may be important exceptions to those rules. Effective interviewing is more involved than simply asking for information: It is a mixture of art and science that can determine the success or failure of an audit career. That's one of the many reasons the best internal auditors believe in lifelong learning, practicing their skills, and preparing thoroughly before every client meeting.

​These are some of my thoughts on interviewing, augmented by research findings. I welcome your tips on effective interviewing techniques.

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