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Open-ended questions: How to build rapport and be in the know

March 10, 2022 - 10 min read

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What are open-ended questions?

Why use open-ended questions?

Types of questions — and how to use them

How to ask open-ended questions

No one who knows what’s going on in your company better than your team. The trick is getting them to tell you about it. There’s a saying that “People answer the question they’re being asked.” It holds true in business as well.

If you ask a closed question, you’ll get a closed answer. The structure of the question indicates that you want a specific answer, not that you’re interested in understanding or taking the conversation further. When you ask open-ended questions, and listen to the answers, you show your team that you’re interested in more than just what’s on the surface.

Learn how to use open-ended questions to build rapport with your teams and find the right talent. 

What are open-ended questions?

You’re probably familiar with the concept of closed and open-ended questions from school. Close-ended questions are those that require a specific answer. The way the question is structured narrows the range of possible responses.

For example, if you’re asking someone how their weekend went, you might phrase the question as “Did you have a nice weekend?”

The inquiry “did you…” only really leaves a couple of answers: yes, they did — or no, they didn’t. If you want to know more about how the weekend went, you’ll need to ask a follow-up question and might not have the opening.

That question style also anchors on the assumption that the goal or ideal state was a "nice weekend." If they didn't have a nice weekend, they may feel judged or lacking and be unwilling to share with you that they had a very difficult weekend because of a death in the family.

Closed questions close you off from learning important information.

If you were to ask instead, “What did you do this weekend?” you’d provide an opening for the person to tell you what they did. This shows more interest and familiarity than simply asking if they had a “nice” weekend. It gives them the opportunity to give you additional information and a more meaningful answer.

Why use open-ended questions?

Using open-ended questions helps you learn about the person that you’re talking to. When used within a business context, they can help you learn more about customer insights, company morale, project success, and workflows. One of the highest compliments you can pay to any person is to listen to them attentively. Asking open-ended questions gives people permission to tell you what they think.

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Open-ended vs. closed-ended questions

With open questions, you can collect information that you can’t get with closed questions. For example, if you want to gauge employee interest in returning to the office, you can ask: “Are you prepared to return to the office full time?” That question is closed, so it will generate a yes or no response.

What it doesn’t tell you is why they said yes or no. Do they have underlying health concerns? Have they moved away from the office? Are they a working parent who’s still trying to navigate hybrid schooling? If — for argument’s sake — your results are split at 50/50, you still don’t have much more information than you started with.

But if you change this to an open-ended question, like “What kind of support would you need to return to the office three days a week?” magic happens. With this kind of question, you invite your team to share what’s going on with them. Perhaps most importantly, you learn what kind of help they need from you.

We can’t be fully present at work if we don’t feel supported and cared for as people. Asking open-ended questions is a key part of creating an empowering and psychologically safe environment. When we do this, our teams can bring their whole selves to work — and we’re not kept in the dark.

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Types of questions — and how to use them

Although open-ended questions are very useful, that isn’t to say that there’s never a time to use close-ended questions. In fact, there are several types of questions you should familiarize yourself with. Learning what they are and the differences between them can help you get the information you need and build a positive relationship with your team.

When to use closed-ended questions

Sometimes, the short answer is more than enough. If you’re doing preliminary research or data collection, you may not be ready for the volume of information that open-ended questions will yield. Asking close-ended survey questions can actually help boost your response rates. Many people, including customers and employees alike, don’t like answering lengthy questionnaires. Keeping these short and to the point can be extremely helpful.

When to use open-ended questions

Anytime you want more than just one-word answers, it helps to start with a good open-ended question. These are excellent questions for interviews, one-on-ones, and self-evaluations

When putting together market research tools, like customer satisfaction surveys, free-form answers can yield valuable information. The person asking the questions may only have had one goal in mind, but allowing people to put their experience into their own words can be illuminating.

For example, your marketing team puts together an online survey to gauge customer experience with a new product. From the yes/no questions, like “Would you recommend this product to a friend,” they’re able to collect quantitative data. Since these are single-word answers, they won’t know why customers answered the way they did.

A few strategic open-ended questions, like “What would have to change for you to recommend this product?” can provide elaboration. The marketing team may be convinced that the product is too expensive, but this kind of qualitative research tells another story. Overwhelmingly, the customers who respond say that it’s very similar to another product that integrates better with their current workflow. That’s valuable insight that you wouldn’t have had without asking the right questions.

open-ended-questions-two-people-talk-in-front-of-a-laptop

How to ask open-ended questions

Asking open-ended questions requires a shift in mindset. Here are some ways to start incorporating open-ended questions into your daily interactions.

1. Pay attention

Listen to the conversations that you're having on a regular basis. Where do you feel stopped in the conversation? Where are you finding yourself having to ask for more information? What kind of questions are you asking already?

Beginning to pay attention to these patterns will help you learn how — and when — to ask open-ended questions.

2. Decide what you want to know

What's your purpose and asking the question? Do you want to learn more about the people on your team, a potential candidate, or about customer experience?

Once you know what you want to learn, you can start brainstorming leading questions. 

3. Practice

It may feel awkward, but practicing the questions you'll ask in common situations can actually help you get better at asking them. When I worked in sales, we used to practice questions back and forth with each other.

In situations where you might get nervous or let habit take over, practicing your questions can help you redirect. You'll find that these new conversation patterns feel more natural if you've practiced a few times.

4. Don't give up

If the other person seems hesitant to respond, don't be surprised. Most of us are afraid of talking too much — especially when we’re used to being asked yes/no questions. You may have to encourage people to keep talking. Ask follow-up questions or simply say “Can you say a little more about that?” 

Don't be afraid to share your reasons for asking as well. You'd be surprised how flattering and encouraging a simple “I wanted to get to know you better” can be.

Final thoughts

Changing our communication patterns isn't easy. It takes a high level of self-awareness, dedication, and practice. But learning to ask open-ended questions is a skill that will benefit you both in your personal and professional development. No matter how much we rely on electronic communication, it's unlikely that anything will replace human conversation. It's an art worth improving.

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Published March 10, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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