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How to Convert Closed Questions to Open Ones by Tony Stoltzfus

Aug 12th, 2013 | By | Category: Coaching Tools, Featured Content

There’s an art to asking questions that make people think. Read through the following dialogue and see if you can put your finger on what’s not working in the kind of questions that are being utilized:

      “So, John, are you doing well today?”

      “Yeah, pretty good.”

      “Did you do your action steps this week?”

      “Uh, yes, most of them.”

      “Was there one that was harder than the others?”

      “Well, I had a tougher time with the journaling.”

      “So that was the hardest. Were you able to journal two days a week?”

      “I probably did it once or twice.”

      “Was there something in particular that made that a hard step to take?”

      “I suppose—it was just hard to get to it. I wanted to do it but it just didn’t seem to happen.”

      “So—do you want to try that step again this week?”

      “I guess so.”

Not much of a flow to this conversation, is there? The coach is directing the agenda in the conversation by using only closed questions. Feeling out of control, the client is giving short answers that feel almost sullen or resistant. Because of this, the coach has to work hard to come up with question after question. He’s actually talking more than the client—many of the questions are longer than the answers.

Closed questions are ones that can be answered with a “yes” or “no.” They don’t ask for in-depth analysis—you only have two predetermined options for answers you can give. In this situation it’s even worse. Every one of the questions in the example practically begs for a “yes” answer. Unfortunately, the client can’t or doesn’t always want to answer “yes,” and to answer “no” would make him look bad (“Did you do your action steps this week?” “No.”) So the individual evades the questions and becomes more and more resistant to the process. A string of closed questions tends to shut down a coaching conversation.

Open Questions

The opposite of a closed question is an open question. Open questions can be defined in two different ways:

  1. They are questions that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no.”
  2. Open questions allow clients to answer in whatever way they want.

Open questions keep the other person in the conversation in charge. There is no right or wrong answer, so they don’t put people on the defensive. Since they can be answered however the client chooses, they allow the client’s discernment to lead the conversation to what’s important. They also make coaching a lot less taxing! If you find yourself working hard to come up with a rapid-fire string of questions, it’s likely that your questions are closed.

Converting closed questions to open ones is easy. Let’s rework the story about John to see how the process works. I’ve crossed out some words and added new ones (in bold face) to make these closed questions open:

      “So, John, how are you doing well today?”

      “Pretty good. I had a fun week at work and our church league softball team got second in the tournament.”

      “What did you do on your action steps this week?”

      “Well, I managed to exercise three times a week, so that went pretty well. I think I’m getting in a rhythm there. I tried to call my uncle three times but I never caught him, and he hasn’t returned my call yet. I’ll have to try again next week if he doesn’t get back to me. The journaling I only did that once or twice instead of the four times I was shooting for.”

      “Was there one that Which one was harder than the others?”

Almost any closed question can be made open by adding “how,” “what,” “which,” or “who” at the beginning. And notice the difference it makes! Not only is there a flow to the conversation, but two open questions got more of a response out of the client than six closed questions—meaning the coach doesn’t have to work nearly as hard.

Tony Stoltzfus is an author, leadership coach and master coach trainer. For more information on this subject check out Tony’s best-selling coaching book, Leadership Coaching.

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