Why ask open questions?

When we talk to our employees, we are talking to individuals we do not necessarily know well, especially not on a personal level. This has always been a challenge, especially now that employees are returning to the office after long periods of teleworking, or are using hybrid working and only meeting colleagues a few times a month.

But there is a simple solution that will allow you to talk to anyone, anytime – open questions. By asking questions like these, you can avoid frequent and repetitive conversational patterns, while encouraging a greater flow of information.

How are open questions different from closed ones?

The closed questions can be compared with the questions on the test, where you have to circle one of the given answers. In principle, they should be answered simply and briefly, often even in a single word. They do not require further explanation and do not stimulate debate, as they deal mostly with the facts.

Open questions, on the other hand, could be compared to an essay. Such questions encourage people to formulate their answers based on their own perspective and opinion. They do not ask for facts, but deal with thoughts and feelings, most of which cannot even be labelled as right or wrong.

Most of the time, we ask questions in a way that gets the answers we want. While listening to the answers, we often smile, nod and wait for the interlocutor to say more. To get informative and substantive answers, we should ask open-ended questions that invite our interlocutor to share his or her own thoughts, opinions and insights. This can be done by asking “Who? What? When? Where? Why?” to those that start with “How. . . ? Why. . . ?” or further stimulate the interlocutor’s thinking with questions beginning with “In what sense. . . ? How was it . . . ? What did you think. . . ?”.

Closed questions are not prohibited

Absolutely not. They can be a very good prelude to the more open questions that follow. We can simply let the interlocutor say what he or she thinks, after all, who doesn’t like to talk about themselves? But it is better to steer the conversation in a direction that indicates what we are most interested in. For example, instead of “Tell me about yourself!”, you could say “Tell me about your life as a competitive juggler!”. This avoids asking questions that are too broad and can confuse the interlocutor. So, even when we ask a closed question, and perhaps an empty one, we can follow it up with an open question, showing the interlocutor that we have asked the question out of genuine interest and not because of the pressures of social etiquette or for the sake of making small talk.

If you’re still not completely convinced, try answering the two questions below yourself and you’ll see the difference immediately.

Question 1: How did the meeting go?

Question 2: What did you discuss at the meeting?