Communication can be tricky. Many of us believe that if we ask lots of questions, we are communicating well and connecting with the other person. This may or may not be the case. To communicate effectively, we must ask the right questions at the right time to get the information we truly need. When asking questions, you must identify whether the questions are ‘open’ or ‘closed.’
Closed questions. Most questions we ask are closed, meaning they require only a simple yes or no answer. Unfortunately, a closed question rarely gives us actionable information. Closed questions may begin with words such as can, will, do, should, are, and could. No matter how we begin a closed question, it generally allows only for a monosyllabic response. The lure of closed questions is efficiency. The trap is they too often do not tell us what we need to know. For instance, suppose you ask the question, “Do you understand?” Typically people will automatically say yes—even if they don’t have a clue what’s going on. Why? Because they’re afraid if they say no, they will appear stupid, and they know a yes is what the person wants. Closed questions often derail positive action, whereas open questions such as “What questions do you have?” can serve as a genuine invitation for discussion, question, and contribution.
Open questions. Contrary to closed questions, we tend to ask open questions less frequently, even though they give us valuable information. Open questions result in tangible, concrete answers. Only six different words can begin an open question: who, what, when, where, why, and how. You could also add two expressions that help draw out information, which are “Tell me more!” and “Because…?” The key difference here is that open questions require more than a single-word response. They ask for information—critical data, details, demonstration of comprehensive—that a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question does not.
When determining whether to use an open or closed question, think about what kind of answer you are seeking; closed questions generate short answers with little additional information, whereas open questions provide detailed information that makes it easier to diagnose a problem and identify a solution.
Both open and closed questions have important places in business. As leaders, we need to recognize when to use each type of question as a means of promoting effective communication. Each leader must think responsibly in the moment and identify which type of information they need and which method will produce this information.
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