Saturday 25 March 2023

How open is that question?

You know that thing, when you hear yourself explain something, and realise that you have never articulated it like that before; in fact that you hadn't really thought of it like that before. It's always a good moment. When I hear people I am coaching do that, I know that something valuable has happened. But it is also good to notice it in ourselves.

So I was interested in hearing myself talking about open questions, last week. The classic distinction between closed questions (those that can be answered with a yes or no answer) and open questions (those that expect a fuller answer) is helpful. Closed questions take forms such as 'Did you do that?' or 'Will you do that?' etc.  Open questions tend to start with What, How, Why etc, either stated or implied (though do be careful of 'Why did you...?' as it can sound like an accusation: many of us have been asked that 'Why did you break the window?' type of question as children...)

But what surprised me was to hear myself draw a distinction between directive open questions and truly open questions.

A directive open question might be 'What are your reflections on what happened that day?' That is, it is an open question, inviting a fuller answer than yes or no; but it also directs the person being asked - it says what you are interested in hearing about.  Whereas a truly open question is: What do you want to think about, and what are your thoughts?  or likewise, What more do you think, or feel, or want to say?

I do not want to imply here that there is any hierarchy of questions; that closed questions are bad, or that truly open questions are the best. It all depends on context and intention. Closed questions are very important when you want to establish facts, or close a conversation with clear commitments for the future, for example. 

Likewise, directive open questions are very useful when you want to explore and understand more about a subject under discussion; and truly open questions are the ones to use when you want the other person to think independently of your influence: as themselves and for themselves. That is why they are the starting point in a Thinking Partnership approach. But it is worthy of note that even in a Thinking Environment, we use all three types. The truly open dominate; but if we encounter a block, we may move to directive open questions: 'What are you assuming that is stopping you from...' and then on to closed questions: 'Do you think that it is true that...?'

So the skill is to increase our awareness and become adept at using the type of question that best serves our purpose - or that of the person we are engaging with - at every stage of the conversation.

But as I said at the start, what I found interesting was that I had never made such an explicit contrast between the two very different types of open question as I did earlier this week. Someone must have been listening to me...


With thanks to Brandable Box and Lia Trevarthen for sharing their photos on Unsplash

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