Asking Open Questions

by Stephen Boyd | December 31, 2003

To improve the quality of your next conversation, learn to ask open questions. This will help you listen more than you talk, and you will obtain much more information with which to reach informed decisions. In addition, the person who asks questions can control the direction of the conversation.

Closed questions are better than no questions but usually elicit only a yes or no response; you end up talking more even though you are asking questions. Open questions usually begin with "what," "why," or "how." They seek an opinion or a specific reaction to an issue or topic. Some sample open questions would be, "How do you feel about the solution we have discussed?" or "What do you think about going ahead with the revisions?" These are much better than "Is the solution going to work?" or "Should we go ahead with the revisions?"

Ask positive questions. When our children were young, two of our favorite questions were "What was the best thing that happened at school today?" and "What is one thing you learned today?" Thus the conversation that followed was usually positive and enjoyable besides teaching us about the school environment.

A way to insure more questions in your next conversation is simple. Instead of giving your opinion or input when the other person quits talking, ask a question. Usually we can’t wait to give an opinion or an example of what happened to us; instead, resist just a few more moments and ask an open question such as "Why is that important to you?" or "What was her reaction to that?" This will keep you listening and allow you time to improve the quality of your eventual response.

Two cautions with questions:  First, don’t ask too many. If you do, the conversation will soon become an interrogation. In addition, be sure you listen to the entire answer. You must be patient to listen through the answers and not be thinking of how you want to respond.

You can become a great conversationalist not by how well you talk, but by the quality and number of your open questions.

About the Author

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.

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