Most of the time we pose a question to get an answer. Sometimes the answers are satisfactory, sufficient and, in glorious moments, even game-changing. Sometimes, they’re less than that—and we often have to follow up with additional questions until we’re satisfied with the answer or answers we’ve received. But, have you ever considered how the quality of the question affects the quality of the answer? If the point of the question is more than to elicit a simple “yes” or “no”—in other words, to engage in a meaningful dialogue with another person—then the nature, the structure and the phrasing of the question are often just as important as what comes next.
Open questions = going beyond just yes or no
How we ask questions tells the listener all sorts of things about how we’re approaching a conversation—potentially disclosing our own bias or thinking, our level of desire for dialogue (as opposed to simply a quick exchange of information) and our true interest in their actual thoughts and feelings on a given subject. For example, consider what you might infer about the questioner’s position when asked,
“You don’t really want this old sweater, do you?”
The questioner’s desired reply is implicitly stated in the question itself. Based on the construct of the question, not only is the “witness being led,” but the proposed options are limited. It’s a “yes” or “no” question by design. What if, instead, you were asked,
“What would you like to do with this old sweater?”
You might still have a sense of the answer the questioner might want to hear, but your options for answering are wide open—and that’s why the former is called a closed question and the latter an open question. The very structure of the latter question lends itself to a conversation, whereas the former aims to inhibit conversation. And this doesn’t just hold true for cleaning out your closets with a partner or spouse!
Exercise: Which question will best get the conversation going?
Consider the simple difference between the following two questions posed to an employee during a performance evaluation:
1. “Do you think you have met or achieved your goals for this year?”
2. “How do you think you have met or achieved your goals for this year?”
The difference should be obvious. And still, there’s even more room to “open” up the question:
3. “Let’s talk about the progress and challenges you’ve achieved/encountered in working toward your goals this year. Where would you like to start?”
The aim of question #1 is to elicit a definitive reply—namely yes, no, or some variation in between. The aim of question #2 is to elicit a more qualitative reply—perhaps a narrative response that reflects the employee’s impression of their progress. And the aim of #3 is to initiate a dialogue. While question #1 imposes a yes/no dichotomy, question #3 assumes both progress and challenge, implicitly asks for dialogue (i.e., “Let’s talk”) and shares control of that dialogue with the employee. Though you’ve set the topic, you asked where they would like to begin.
Though not every question requires dialogue—and some are meant to avoid it altogether—when a meaningful exchange is the desired outcome, opening up the questions we ask (of our staff, supervisees, constituents, etc.) can have dramatic effects on the exchange that follows.