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Open and Closed Questions

 

Techniques > Questioning > Open and Closed Questions

Closed questions | Open questions

 

These are two types of questions you can use that are very different in character and usage.

Closed questions

Definition

There are two definitions that are used to describe closed questions. A common definition is:

A closed question can be answered with either a single word or a short phrase.

Thus 'How old are you?' and 'Where do you live?' are closed questions. A more limiting definition that is sometimes used is:

A closed question can be answered with either 'yes' or 'no'.

By this definition 'Are you happy?' and 'Is that a knife I see before me?' are closed questions, whilst 'What time is it?' and 'How old are you?' are not. This causes a problem of how to classify the short-answer non-yes-or-no questions, which do not fit well with the definition for open questions. A way of handling this is to define 'yes-no' as a sub-class of the short-answer closed question.

Using closed questions

Closed questions have the following characteristics:

  • They give you facts
  • They are easy to answer.
  • They are quick to answer.
  • They keep control of the conversation with the questioner.

This makes closed questions useful in the following situations:

 

Usage Example

As opening questions in a conversation, as it makes it easy for the other person to answer, and doesn't force them to reveal too much about themselves.

It's great weather, isn't it?

Where do you live?

What time is it?

For testing their understanding (asking yes/no questions). This is also a great way to break into a long ramble.

So, you want to move into our apartment, with your own bedroom and bathroom -- true?  

For setting up a desired positive or negative frame of mind in them (asking successive questions with obvious answers either yes or no ).

Are you happy with your current supplier?

Do they give you all that you need?

Would you like to find a better supplier?

For achieving closure of a persuasion (seeking yes to the big question). If I can deliver this tomorrow, will you sign for it now?
 

Note how you can turn any opinion into a closed question that forces a yes or no by adding tag questions, such as "isn't it?", "don't you?" or "can't they?", to any statement.

The first word of a question sets up the dynamic of the closed question and signals the easy answer ahead. Note how these are words like: do, would, are, will, if

Open questions

Definition

An open question can be defined thus:

An open question is likely to receive a long answer.

Although any question can receive a long answer, open questions deliberately seek longer answers, and are the opposite of closed questions.

Using open questions

Open questions have the following characteristics:

  • They ask the respondent to think and reflect.
  • They will give you opinions and feelings.
  • They hand control of the conversation to the respondent.

This makes open questions useful in the following situations:

 

Usage Example

As a follow-on from closed questions, to develop a conversation and open up someone who is rather quiet.

What did you do on you holidays? 

How do you keep focused on your work?

To find out more about a person, their wants, needs, problems, and so on. What's keeping you awake these days?

Why is that so important to you?

To get people to realize the extend of their problems (to which, of course, you have the solution). I wonder what would happen if your customers complained even more?

Rob Jones used to go out late. What happened to him? 

To get them to feel good about you by asking after their health or otherwise demonstrating human concern about them. How have you been after your operation?

You're looking down. What's up?

    

Open questions begin with such as: what, why, how, describe.

Using open questions can be scary, as they seem to hand the baton of control over to the other person. However, well-placed questions do leave you in control as you steer their interest and engage them where you want them.

When opening conversations, a good balance is around three closed questions to one open question. The closed questions start the conversation and summarize progress, whilst the open question gets the other person thinking and continuing to give you useful information about them.

A neat trick is to get them to ask you open questions. This then gives you the floor to talk about what you want. The way to achieve this is to intrigue them with an incomplete story or benefit.

 

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