‘The best investment is in the tools of one’s trade’ Benjamin Franklin
Influencing and persuading are critical skills to develop during your career. They expand your impact and ability to get things done.
Of course, in order to actively listen, you need to get the other person talking.
This article looks at open-ended questions which are a straightforward, effective way to get the conversation started.
Open-ended questions are questions where the asker is seeking a detailed answer and which can’t be answered with a straight ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.
Its counterpart is a closed-ended question. That is a question that invites a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer.
Open-ended questions are generally explorative in nature. They invite the respondent to take their time and add detail to their answer.
Closed questions are generally specific to a particular point. The way they are asked does not usually invite the respondent to expand on the topic. They are seeking a quick one-word answer.
Let’s look at a couple of examples:
All of the open-ended questions are inviting detailed answers, whereas the close-ended questions are inviting short responses.
As with all tools, there is a time and a place to use open-ended questions.
They’re not appropriate in all situations.
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of using them.
Open-ended questions are very good at gathering detailed responses.
They are great to use when you are looking for detailed, expansive answers.
Open-ended questions are also perfect when you are:
Open-ended questions do not limit users to answers from a few options.
When you ask an open-ended question, you are signalling that you are interested in the other person’s views and opinions.
You would like to spend some time hearing and discussing their views. This is a great way to build rapport with someone.
Making people feel valued and ‘heard’ is a vital part of relationship building. For more on this, see our review of “How To Win Friends And Influence People”.
There is a time and a place to use an open-ended question.
Let’s look at their disadvantages so that you can see when it would be a bad idea to use them.
Asking an open-ended question is a signal to the other person to spend a little time answering the question.
If you are short on time, you should probably avoid using one.
Open-ended questions allow the respondent to answer in all sorts of different ways. They are general in nature.
If you need a specific answer to a particular question asking an open question is risky. You may not get the answer that you need.
Ask your questions clearly and concisely. Try to ask your question directly so that the person you’re asking is clear on what you’d like to understand.
If you are inviting them to answer at length, it’s essential to make sure they’re talking about the correct point, so try to be precise.
Try not to ‘lead the witness’.
If you’re asking an open-ended question, try to be neutral when asking the question. That way, you are more likely to get the other persons genuine view.
If you signal your preference when asking the question, you’re likely to alter their answer and also make the question more closed.
For example, asking ‘Can you tell me why you think this problem arose?’ is something you might typically ask when trying to resolve a conflict, rather than asking ‘Do you think that this problem arose because of issues with XXX?’
Don’t rush the person you are talking to.
Let them take a little time, and if they pause to think don’t rush to fill the pause. You may cut off their answer halfway through and lose some valuable details.
A great way to show that you’re really interested in what the other person has to say is to ask them to email if they have any thoughts later on.
We’ve all had the experience of thinking of a great answer after a meeting has finished. Usually, we won’t then send the thought to the person we were speaking to as we think that the time has passed.
If you let them know that you’d really appreciate any further thoughts that they have, then you’re signalling your real interest in the moment, and also increasing the chances that they will email you any follow-up thoughts that they have.
Open-ended questions are a hugely valuable tool. They can transform your relationships and management up and down your organisation.
Next time you’ve time to prepare for a meeting, try to think of three really good open questions to ask and see how much difference they make to the interaction.
They are a great basis for exploring someone’s issues and so starting to move towards a win-win outcome for everyone.