Open-ended Questions

by Krishna on March 22, 2006

Open-ended questions are the lifeblood of a discussion. Without them, a discussion becomes a session of agreement or argument, and not what it should be: free-flow of ideas to find the best solution for a problem.

Open-ended questions are very important in a discussion between persons of unequal power. In such a discussion, if the person who has superior power asks closed-ended questions which have a limited set of choices as answers, the junior person will usually not venture outside of those choices to provide more insight into the problem that is being solved.

In a superior-junior relationship, open-ended questions have to be carefully framed and expressed in the right tone, because the relationship dictates that some questions can be interpreted as closed-ended, even if it seems reasonably open-ended, when taken literally.

For example, closed-ended questions can appear in different forms such as:

  • What is the better way to solve this problem: A or B?
  • Can’t we solve this problem by doing Task A?
  • What is your opinion about MY solution for this problem?
  • Do you think you are capable enough to fix this problem by Monday evening?
  • Why can’t you solve the problem?

Look at the last question. That seems reasonably open-ended. But suppose a manager by his/her voice or facial expression expresses contempt or lack of confidence, the chances of getting a true answer are very far fetched.

Hence an open ended question is not just about how the question is framed, although that itself is very crucial. It is also about how the person asks the question. Is he or she really interested in hearing the right answer? Are they prepared to hear bad news? What does their face and tone of voice convey? Does it feel that the person has already made a decision and is looking for someone to confirm it?

To get good solutions, a manager should start with only presenting the problem initially and asking people what they think of it. At this point, he/she should keep his/her own analysis of the problem hidden. This gives people an opportunity to ask questions regarding the problem that may uncover some new aspects of the problem.

Once the others understand the problem, they will volunteer their suggestions. This is a tricky situation. The manager may have thought of some of these solutions and this may show up on his/her face. That should be avoided. The manager must not accept or reject the suggestion outright. Instead, he or she should record it and ask further questions of the person regarding the proposed solution.

One issue with getting advice or suggestions from someone is if you finally decide to implement a different or opposite solution and they find out. In many cases, the person may be offended especially if they have spent time and effort in providing information to you. Since you cannot please everyone, it is better to consult with limited persons who are knowledgeable and then convey your final decision with your reasons before implementing them.

In a business environment, a manager has the ability to do this exercise in a brainstorming session and come to a decision in the meeting with everyone’s consensus — though some may disagree, they will support the decision. But it is still critical that no one feels that the manager had made the decision before coming for the meeting and was only trying to sell the idea.

When on the wrong side of a superior-junior relationship, if the manager is a person who values candor, you would be doing your job a service by recognizing closed-ended questions posed by the manager and asking more questions of the manager to understand what his/her root problem was.

In a discussion with peers, there will be more ideas flowing freely. Still it is useful to frame questions carefully so that they may be able to provide more detailed feedback on some issue than a simple Yes/No or a multiple-choice answer.

{ 1 comment }

itsmanoj_k1 March 25, 2006 at 1:54 pm


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