OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS

Excerpt From Relationships That Work: The Power Of Conscious Living
– By David B. Wolf

“Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” – Pablo Picasso

Open-ended questions are another valuable listening tool. Effectively utilized, they encourage the speaker to share more. A closed-ended question is one that invites a one-word answer. Some examples of closed-ended questions:

“How many years have you been at this job?”

“Were you happy in high school?”

“How many siblings do you have?”

An assumption behind closed-ended questions is that the questioner determines what is important. Open-ended questions assume that the person being questioned decides what is most essential. Examples of open-ended invitations include:

“What is your experience in this job?”

“I’d like to hear more about what high school was like for you.”

“Could you speak more about your relationship with your brothers and sisters?”

“What is your confusion about?”

Closed-ended questions have their healthy place in communication, though usually the information sought with a closed-ended question comes automatically—along with much more—in response to an open-ended query. For example, once I had a new client who expressed that she wanted to have a child. Though I considered that knowing whether she was nineteen or forty-two might be helpful information, I didn’t ask, “How old are you?” The conversation included open-ended questions such as, “What’s happening in your relationship with your partner on this issue of children?” and, “What would having a child mean for you?” In the natural course of conversation, the client disclosed that she was twenty-nine years old, without me needing to make it my specific agenda to gather that piece of information.

Appropriately used, questions help people to talk about themselves and concretely define their challenges and situations in terms of specific experiences, behaviors and emotions. Suppose someone says, “My family life is a mess.” With an open-ended question—such as “What is it about your family life that’s not satisfying for you?”—we invite the speaker to describe his situation more tangibly. He might respond, “My job has me traveling so much, and I can barely pay the bills. And my children are constantly fighting. I don’t know how to handle them.” At that point it may be appropriate to follow this with empathy, showing understanding of affect and content. “I hear that so much travel is stressful for you, and you’re experiencing a lot of financial strain. Also, you’re frustrated with your children.” This reflection could serve as a prompt for the speaker to further explore any one of the three areas. Though open-ended questions are a powerful listening tool because they show interest in the client’s world, keep in mind that too many consecutive questions can be a roadblock, causing the person to feel interrogated. An effective question will elicit rich information, and often it is valuable to follow the question with a reflective response to ensure that we’ve grasped the information.

Concreteness is another important principle in effective communication. If we find conversations to be uninteresting, it may be a sign that we lack concreteness, instead talking with excessive generalities. Concreteness comes with clarity, excitement and the potential to augment understanding, growth and connection. For example if I say, “I just don’t feel right,” my statement is vague. Your discovery about me will be enriched if I express with concreteness that, “I was awake all night studying. I don’t feel confident about the material, and I’m exhausted, and this test means everything about my future in the program.” An open-ended question is often an excellent means to encourage concrete expression.

Clarity in expression greatly influences people’s perception of us. Austrian statesman Metternich said, “Anything that is good in itself must be capable of being expressed clearly and precisely. The moment I come across words that are not very clear, I am left with the conclusion that they are either mistaken or deceitful.” As a suggestion for practicing concreteness in your life, describe an experience in writing—first vaguely, and then concretely. (For example, “Today was a downer” is an imprecise expression of experience, whereas “I had a terrible headache during my entire work day” is a concrete statement.)

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