If you want great conversations, ask great questions. Tweet This The purpose of a conversation is a two-way exchange. If you ask the right things in the wrong way, you can shut down the flow of ideas. There’s a lot to learn about mastering question-asking, but to start with the basics, there are three types of questions: Open, Closed, and False Questions.
Open questions cannot logically be answered with a “yes” or “no” response. EXAMPLE: “What is your favorite color?”
Closed questions require a “yes” or “no” response. EXAMPLE: “Is blue your favorite color?”
False questions offer advice in the form of a question. Technically they are questions, but they function like declarations. They don’t invite others to add to the conversation. They propose a solution for the other person to adopt. EXAMPLE: “Don’t you think that blue is the best color?”
Open questions invite exploration and conversation. Our brains naturally want to answer the question, so we imagine possible responses. And the conversation that comes out of those questions feels like two people standing side by side, exploring an idea together.
- “What options do you have now?”
- “Who else could help with this?”
- “How will you know when you’ve been successful?”
On the other hand, closed questions initiate evaluation and critique. They spark others to play a game of True or False, switching on the critical evaluation modes of their brains.
- “Did you do what I asked?”
- “Is this method working?”
- “Do you really want to do that?”
And false questions are the most dangerous of all. Unsolicited advice is received as judgment. Tweet This Ironically, when it’s accurate advice it feels even worse. There’s no quicker way to shut down a conversation than shoving solutions into it. Tweet This
For any parents who are struggling to get your kids to talk to you, this could be part of the problem. You might have enabled your teenager to respond with short, yes or no answers, closing off the conversation. Of course, the most clever question in the world won’t magically make teenagers into conversational adults. But I spent several years working with teenagers for a living and I can promise that how you ask does make a difference, even to surly sixteen year olds.
Leaders have to be even more careful with this, because your position of authority makes others more cautious about disagreeing with you. Your solutions end the conversation quickly—that’s what we’ll do. Your closed questions shift the conversation to being evaluated by your boss—they better get the right answer. Hundreds of times I’ve seen leaders shut down a group exploration of what to do by blurting out the solution that they like. So many great ideas have been killed that way.
At the end of each chapter in my forthcoming book, I’ve got a set of discussion questions for individuals or small groups can use to explore the ideas further. Engaging with these open questions could be more powerful than any of the teaching in the book. In fact, I believe this so much that in early drafts of the book, I didn’t have any teaching debriefs at all—I just asked questions at the end of each story chapter.
It might feel awkward at first, but if you can retrain yourself to ask more open questions you will find the quality of all your conversations increase. And the quality of your conversations determines the quality of your relationships.