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The Three Levels of Questions

Sometimes, Routine Information Is Simply Inadequate.

Because we ask and answer questions all the time, most of us fall into a routine of exchanging routine information that is safe and requires little thought. However, for a public relations professional researching a story for a press release or for a manager interviewing a job candidate, this routine information is inadequate. Interesting news stories tell readers things that they do not know, and employment interviewers need to get past the obvious and find out what job applicants are really like.

Conversation takes place on at least three levels. The first level is what we might call small talk. It is more a set of learned behaviors than an exchange of information. When someone says, “Hi, how are you?” you are supposed to respond with, “Fine; how are you?”

Anyone who treats this like a probing interview question is seriously lacking in social skills. “My ulcer is getting worse, my car was repossessed, and my dog ran away” is too much information. This answer might make a good chorus for a country song, but it is not what the person you run into in the elevator wants to hear.

Level One

Level one conversation has its place, but it is a waste of time in an interview. Etiquette may require a brief level one exchange at the beginning, but otherwise it is to be avoided. Level two interview questions are focused on gathering information that the interviewer does not have.

Level Two

A journalist interviewing an author might ask, “What motivated you to write this book?” A hiring committee could ask an interviewee to walk them through the applicant’s previous day on the job. These are level two questions because they seek previously unknown information that is pertinent to the purpose of the interview.

Level Three

Level three conversation is extraordinarily different from levels one and two because it explores information that may be unknown to both parties. Usually it reveals behavior. A level three question might ask an interviewee why he or she did something.

For instance, one might ask an author why a particular topic was selected for a book, or an employer might ask an applicant why a job listed on the resume lasted for less than a year. If the interviewee is expecting the question and has a ready answer, then the conversation stays at level two. If the question forces the interviewee to search for an answer and articulate something for the first time, then it is level three.

The Key

The key to taking an interview to level three and staying there is to follow up level three questions with more level three questions on the same topic. This isn’t possible with formula interview questions downloaded from the web.

Each level three question has to be followed with another level three question that probes something the interviewee said in the previous answer. If the interviewee says, “I wasn’t happy at that job,” the follow-up question should be, “Why weren’t you happy?” If the response is, “I didn’t get along with my boss,” the next question should be, “Why didn’t you get along with your boss?”

Of course, all level three probing needs to be through open questions. It closes the line of questioning if the interviewer follows up the answer about not being happy on the job with, “Is it important for you to be happy on the job?” Closed questions like this have yes or no answers, and they don’t lead to follow-up questions that can take the conversation deeper.

What should the interviewer say if the interviewee says, “I get along with most of my coworkers at my current job”? An expert interviewer is not going to say, “Great; we all get along with one another here, too. I am sure you will fit right in.” The correct follow-up question is, “Tell me about a coworker with whom you did not get along.”

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..