Effective open questions

How to use effective open questions

What’s the difference between ‘Did you have a good day?’ and ‘What did you do today?

The first seems engaging, the use of ‘good’ even suggestive of a potentially positive result. It’s a winner, right?

Well, it actually depends on what you need. 

When you are with your colleagues, you’ll often get more out of them by using questions like the latter (open), rather than the former (closed). 

There’s a big difference between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ questions and if you want to spark reflection and discussion – always aim for open questions.

I recently was awarded the highest certification given by the International Coach Federation, a Master Coach Certification. It’s an award only 2% of ICF credentialed coaches have and it certainly was a real learning journey!

However, as I think about how that’s been useful to my clients, I reflect on how these types of questions are probably one of the most useful tools my coaching clients take away from our sessions. It sparks self-reflection during the executive coaching, but if they copy the model with others – it’s a tool they can immediately use with colleagues… and no doubt their families too. 

Open questions start with the ‘How, What, Why, Where and Who’ – much like words they advise journalists to use. Closed questions, by comparison, start with variations of ‘Do, Is or Are’; all of which lend themselves to be answered by a short ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’

As a quick hint, if you are unsure if the question you’re about to ask is closed or open – just ask  ‘Could the listener answer with a quick yes or no?’ If so, it’s a clear ‘closed’ question that will get you limited results. 

Closed QuestionEffective Open Question
So, do you understand what I need?What are your priorities in handling this?
Do you have any questions?Who else do you need to know?
Can you get this to me by Monday?With your other work, when will I get this? 
Do you have everything you need?How else can you find out that information?

I was reminded of this when Emma, a client, lamented to me how a young guy on her team, Trevor, routinely made mistakes in his work that she’d often have to clean up. She replayed their conversations when I noticed it sounded like she primarily asked Trevor closed questions like ‘Do you understand what I’m saying?‘ or ‘Is there anything else you need?’.

Wanting to reassure her, Trevor would often just answer ‘Yes’ – even when he likely still had questions, or hadn’t understood her completely. By slightly adapting to ‘open’ questions, Emma was able to get far better results, and fewer mistakes to fix over the long haul. A result for any busy working woman!

Let’s be clear: open questions work far better for everyone you need to deal with beyond the office – including your partner, friends and the children you love. Get ready for a better chat when you see the difference between ‘Did you have a good day at school today?’ and ‘What was the best part of school today?’

I’d love to hear how you get on with adapting to use more open questions with your colleagues.

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