The power of the open question

We’re filming the ‘Difficult Conversations’ course at the moment and I was asked about open questions. Asking an open question can open up a dialogue, move things along and allow you to understand at a deeper level. We can see the difference between open and closed questions here:

One of your team looks a little down, so you say: “Are you OK Rachel?” She says: “Fine.” This doesn’t really help does it? It just closes it all down, you ask a binary question you get a binary response. But if you’d said: “How are you doing today Rachel?” He says: “Yeah OK, a bit fed up?” You use another open question: “So what’s happening?” Then she opens up: “Well I’m worried about…” Can you see the difference?

If we make a statement it is just that, a statement. It can be agreed with, disagreed with and it can even cement us into a position. This is why sometimes in meetings it’s better to turn statements into questions just so they keep the flow and stop everyone getting hung up. It also allows you to influence the meeting without taking control, which is useful in keeping the discussion moving. For example you could make a statement: “We’re going off track here guys!”

Now this may well be true, but making it statement you made your position clear and this may close down the others. There’s kind of nothing more to say. But what if you say: “Maybe one of us should stop here and summarise?” You get the same effect, but you’re not controlling it, you’re influencing it. No-one can disagree, as it’s a question, and it encourages more discussion. Look at these:

“Are we getting side-tracked here?”

“Where do we think we’re going awry?”

“This is where we want to get to but what’s the best way to get there?”

“I don’t know if it’s me being stupid are the rest of clear where this is going?”

Intelligent questions that make the team think about where it might be going wrong but not by grinding things to a halt. In our ‘Difficult Conversations’ course we’re using some ‘Immersive Learning’ principles, which allow people to practice, and fail, in a safe environment in having those difficult conversations that we all have to have. Because once we learn the power of questions, and see how they useful they are in a work environment, we add another bow to our management armoury. And that’s what we need to do: keep adding new dimensions to us as managers.

The power of the open question
Asking an open question can open up a dialogue, move things along and allow you to understand at a deeper level.