The Power Of Open-Ended Questions

Bring to mind a recent conversation – in the workplace or elsewhere – that didn’t go as well as you would have liked; that left you, or others, feeling misunderstood, undervalued, or unacknowledged. What kinds of questions (if any!) did you and your conversation partners use? Now bring to mind a conversation that went well; that was productive, and that left you and your conversation partners feeling respected, understood, and acknowledged. What kinds of questions did you and your conversation partners use?
Of course, conversations are more than just a set of questions, but chances are, the ones that were used in the conversation that didn’t go so well were closed-ended questions – the kind that result in short answers, either yes/no, or from some other pre-determined options. This kind of question is useful when constructing large-scale surveys or quick information gathering (“When did that email go out?”), but these don’t work so well in conversations with a focus understanding and mutual respect. It is easy to slip into mistake using these in meetings as “being efficient,” but closed-ended questions can often lead to people feeling unheard, or responding in a way they would not choose to simply because of how the question was presented. In the workplace, this can lead to employees feeling resentful or unhappy, and in personal conversations, it can lead to bitterness, raised voices, and an underlying resentment towards the relationship.

This Week’s Tip:

Focus on using open-ended questions in conversations and meetings. In particular, use “How…” or “What…” questions. Seek to understand your conversation partner(s)’ point of view, and ask follow-up questions to make sure you are following along. Avoid using “Why…?” questions, even with people you know well – these can easily be interpreted as aggressive and lead to the partner becoming defensive; instead, rephrase “Why…?” questions as “Tell me more about…”
Some prompts for open-ended questions you may choose to use this week:

  • “What could improve…?”
  • “How would you describe…?”
  • “What would result if…?”
  • “How does… compare with…?”
  • “What is the relationship between…?”
  • “How could you change…?”
  • “How do you feel about…?”
  • “How would you go about solving…?”
  • “What factors went into this…?”
  • “Tell me more about…”
  • “What would help me to understand this better?”
  • “What are we missing here?”

Try focusing on open-ended questions this week, and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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