How (and Why) to ask Open-ended Questions

By Maren Perry, MA, PCC

The ability to ask open-ended questions is one of an Executive Coach’s many skills. We do this in order to draw out our client’s opinions and thoughts. It’s a skill one can develop, and it’s essential to leaders and managers seeking to create a coaching culture rather than a command and control environment.

What is an open-ended question?

It’s a question that allows for elaboration in the response (vs. a closed-ended question which requires a yes/no reply).

‘Did you like the speaker?’ is a closed-ended question, since the reply will require only a yes or a no.

What did you think of the speaker?’ on the other hand, is an open-ended question, since it will ask the respondent to share their thoughts and elaborate beyond a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

Closed-ended questions are necessary. Not every question needs to be an open one. “Is the report complete?” is a completely legitimate question. It’s seeking information, facts. The report is either done or not, so a closed ended question is appropriate.

But in relationship, and especially one between peers or with direct reports that you are developing, often-times open-ended questions are the ticket.

Open-ended questions accomplish several things:

  • They draw out information by asking someone to give a thorough reply. A closed-ended question has the direction of the conversation built-in: the conversation is already framed in the question itself. But an open-ended question leaves it to the respondent to set the direction of the conversation.
  • They express an open curiosity on the part of the ask-er.

These are important qualities to anyone supervising others. In a coaching-type conversation, these questions (or more importantly, the answers to these questions) provide insight into how your employee thinks, which allows you to offer guidance, or mentor more effectively. It also creates relationship: it feels better to be asked an open-ended question than just simply to be able to offer binary yesses or no’s.

Here are some tips for asking open-ended questions:

  • Have a curiosity. Open-ended questions aren’t just a technical issue – they signal a willingness to explore the other person’s motivations and understanding. If you are genuinely curious about what the other person is thinking, open-ended questions will serve you well.
  • ‘WHAT’ is your friend. Generally questions that start with ‘what’ will be open-ended, as in:
    1. What do you see as the missing element in our succession plan?
    2. What do you think of this candidate?
    3. What was it that led you to that conclusion?
  • ‘Why’ is generally NOT your friend. While ‘why’ questions are in fact open-ended, they do not accomplish the spirit of the open-ended question, since they typically put people on the defensive. “Why did you do that?” intrinsically sounds accusatory, whereas “What did you use as the basis of your decision?” does not.
  • ‘Do,’ ‘would,’ ‘could,’ ‘can,’ ‘will’ are generally NOT your friend. A question that starts with any of those is going to be closed-ended, as in:
    1. Do you like the new boss?
    2. Wouldn’t you agree?
    3. Will you align?

Of course, asking open-ended questions is just the beginning. The next step is LISTENING to the reply and engaging in a dialog. When you practice switching your closed-ended questions to open-ended ones, you may find that you create a much more collaborative feel in your relationships.

To find out more about how you can use open-ended questions to develop better relationships with your direct reports (or bosses!), please contact us for more information.