“Yes or No? Please tell me more.”
This quick post touches on one of the very basics. And as is so often, it’s those that are tough to get right and are all too easy to forget.
One very simple attribute of a good and thoughtful question is whether it is closed or open-ended. What’s the difference and why should you care?
Let’s look at examples and compare what an open-ended question would look like:
Closed: “Can I ask you an open-ended question?” “sure” (eery silence follows)
Open-ended: “What are your views on me asking some open-ended questions?” “well, for one thing….”
Manager: “Charles, you look tired. Should you not go home? You had a long day”
Charles: “Yes, boss. Soon. Thanks.”
Manager: (reconsidering his words) “Actually, I am keen to figure out what keeps you in here, so I can help. What is it today that seems to cause so much trouble, so that you are still here?”
Charles: (leaning back, looking at his Manager, stopping to type) “Ok, if you really want to know, I don’t know how to even start. This morning, Shelly came around and…”
How it works
It’s incredibly simple, but so easily forgotten. Open-ended questions simply avoid the opportunity for the other person to escape with a simple ‘Yes/No’. In a wider sense, it means that the person asking closed questions consciously limits the possible range of answers. One can also see the difference in typical exams, there some questions are closed (i.e. multiple choice) and some invite elaboration (open).
Both question types have their place and use. For coaches or those people in a coaching-equivalent situation, however, closed questions are a delicate field. It is akin to limiting your client’s options, while he/she should be the one generating them. “why haven’t you tried X or Z in this situation?” is a good example for a question that a coach should only ask with a client who is not capable of generating their next options, given it, in fact, leads the client to options that the coach knows about. This is a textbook approach to creating a solution with a potential for lack of follow-through and accountability by a coachee.
It’s a tough one
Many people know about the virtue and positive nature of open-ended questions in creating learning, insight in others or simply to further an engaging conversation. It can be so hard though to stay on track with asking open-ended questions in the right situation. They take special mental effort for those of us who need to work on their active listening skills. Ultimately, if you are in a conversation with someone who asks open-ended questions to a good degree, you are very likely facing a person who is really interested in you (rather than trying to be interesting by offering your knowledge in the form of pre-defined choices, camouflaged as a question).
Now go back to basics! It’s always fun to observe to what degree you are using open vs closed questions.