Ask the right question and you'll get the information you need. Communication is key to all aspects of managing people. The questions you ask in interview when recruiting. Making sure an individual has understood a request you have made of them once they are working for you. Coaching them to improve. And a whole lot more. There are, however, different ways to ask a question, so let’s look at some of them and find out when to use them.
If you ask a team member, “Is the task you’re working on going well?” You are asking a closed question. A Closed question expects a specific response. The most common closed question is one that leads to either a “Yes” or a “No” response. For the example, “Is the task you’re working on going well?” one realistic set of answers is “Yes” or “No”. Although in this case you may also get a response of “It’s going OK”. The point is, a closed question has a limited number of responses which are likely to be fairly short and not give you a huge amount of information. Closed questions can be useful to keep a conversation on track. They make it more difficult for the other person to spin off to a new topic.
But in a conversation where you want to find out as much information as possible, or where you’re looking for more ‘why’ information, they may not always be helpful. They don’t encourage the other person to give you additional information. If you were asking about how a task or project was going, more information would probably be helpful. If the other person answers ‘Yes’ to the question “Is the task you’re working on going well?” you might want to know why they think that - in case you don’t agree. Or you might also want to know how far they’ve got. Maybe they’ve done the first bit beautifully, but by now you’d have expected them to be nearly finished, and they’re nowhere near finished. So the bit they’ve done has been done well, but overall from your perspective maybe they’re not doing so well.
Open questions, on the other hand, leave it wide open for the other person to tell you anything. This is a good thing when coaching - when you want to find out how they’re thinking about things and to not push them in any particular direction. You might want to see how they interpret a question and what they think is relevant to include in their answer. You might want to find out which details they think are relevant or important. If coaching, you want them to come up with all sorts of ideas so you want them to feel free to explore any aspect of the topic they think could be relevant.
A more open version of the task question might be “Tell me how the task you’re working on is going”. This allows them to tell you the good and the bad and to raise any aspect of the task with you as they think relevant. Once you start with open questions you’ll probably want to use a few in succession to keep exploring the topic or to keep digging deeper to get more detail.
You can use open and closed questions in combination as well. If you start with a closed question you can find out what someone is thinking overall. In the ‘task’ question, you’d get an idea if the task was or wasn’t going well, but you could then follow up with many more open questions to explore why they think it is or isn’t going well, or to explore which parts of the task may be going well or not so well.
For example, you might start by asking “Is the task you’re working on going well?” That is a closed question. The only realistic answers to that question are “Yes” or “No” or something in between such as “Not bad” or “OK”. You’ve forced an opinion. You can then follow up with an open question to find out why they think that. If they say it is going well you might follow up with “Tell me what you’ve done so far?” and “What are you particularly pleased with?” But you could also throw in “Are there any areas you’re struggling with?” or “Are there any areas you think could have gone better?” These open questions will be where you really start to explore the topic and find out what’s going on and why.
Once you need to bring a conversation to a close, you can switch back to closed questions to force the conversation to some conclusions or actions or agreed time to meet next.
My Question To You
How well do you use questions? Do you used open and closed questions appropriately? If this is something you would like to discuss or would like some help with, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also download my free eBook Team UP! - Powerful Ways to Build, Develop and Maintain an Effective Team and sign up for my weekly newsletter which contains lots of team and self-management tips.
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