Open-Ended Questions

(Encouraging Your Partner To Talk)


"Communication is a two-way street," my brother always used to say when he noticed people wanting to talk but refusing to listen. Free-flowing communication needs both a speaker and a listener. But what if your partner won't talk? Or how about when your partner wants you to communicate and you don't know what to say?

We have trouble expressing ourselves for many different reasons. Some of us have been ignored when we expressed an opinion, while others of us were punished for being wimpy when we showed any emotion at all. We may feel embarrassed about ourselves, have stagefright even in front of one other person, have low self-esteem, or be shy. Many of us have even ignored our own desires and inclinations for so many years that we don't have any idea what we think, feel or want. And finally, we've all run into certain situations that were brand new to us, and we had to figure out how we felt before we could even try to express an opinion about it.

In each of these instances, it helps when we're encouraged to express our feelings and beliefs out loud. And there's nothing better at doing that than Open-Ended Questions. They reassure our partners that we're interested in what they have to say and demonstrate a genuine caring for their welfare. Especially in long-term relationships, where it's tempting to build up beliefs about how our partners think and feel, Open-Ended Questions help us break through our preconceived notions about them and help us realize that every person is always changing, and that in every moment each partner can be a whole new adventure.

What Open-Ended Questions Are

Open-Ended Questions ask our partner for in-depth information, not just a word or two. If we need a paragraph to answer some question, we can be certain it was open-ended. These questions draw people out, make them feel accepted, and boost their self-esteem. On the other hand, Closed-Ended Questions often feel like veiled accusations and trigger defensiveness and resistance in the listener.

Let's try another experiment to demonstrate how unerringly each type of question triggers certain responses. Imagine that your partner is asking you these Closed-Ended Questions. What emotional impact do they have on you?

  • Didn't you know any better?
  • Do you hate them for it?
  • Where did you put my pencil?
  • When are you coming home?
  • Are you going to do it or not?
  • Whom do you like best?
  • Don't you care about me any more?

Pretty scary, huh? Closed-Ended Questions put us on the witness stand, and defensive reactions are never far behind. Obviously, if we want our partner to open up and confide in us, it's wiser not to use them.
We respond to Open-Ended Questions in a very different way. Try out this list. What emotional responses would you have if your partner said them to you?

  • How did you do it?
  • How are you feeling now?
  • How are you going to tell your mother about being pregnant?
  • What did you do?
  • What did he say about getting married?
  • What do you think you'll do with your life?
  • What is it about her that bothers you?

Do you still feel like you're on the witness stand? Probably not. Open-Ended Questions allow us to address even intimidating issues without feeling especially intimidated. They can improve the tone of an argument in an instant. With Open-Ended Questions, even the "strong, silent type" will be amazed at how comfortable they feel sharing information about themselves.

What Open-Ended Questions Do

Like the essay questions that many of us dreaded in school exams, Open-Ended Questions request more than a simple yes/no, true/false answer. Ironically, in real life it's the true/false (Closed-Ended) questions that spark feelings of defensiveness and mistrust in us, while the essay (Open-Ended) questions help us feel accepted and understood. This is because Closed-Ended Questions seem to imply that there's a right answer and a wrong answer, and by golly, we'd better get the right one! They also remind us of being a witness in a courtroom: "Did you or did you not, on the night of the 13th, see the suspect at 1023 Main Street?"

On the other hand, Open-Ended Questions suggest that there may not be a single correct answer. "What do you want to do with your life?" offers far greater latitude for creative thinking and imaginative new responses than "Are you going to be a doctor or not?"

How To Use Open-Ended Questions

The easiest way to create an Open-Ended Question is to simply begin a sentence with the words "how" or "what." Notice that all the Open-Ended Questions listed above begin with these words. On the other hand, the words "did," "didn't," "who" and "when" usually create Closed-Ended Questions, with their associated feeling of defensiveness.

Open-ended questions usually feel so natural to the listener that you can generally use them one after another without the listener feeling uncomfortable. They are, after all, one of the fundamental tools-of-the-trade for counselors and psychotherapists, precisely because they open up clients so effectively and help them feel comfortable and accepted.

"Why" is another word that introduces an Open-Ended Question, but using it is tricky. To the listener, "why" frequently comes across as judgmental or critical. As a result it can actually close them down instead of opening them up. So I recommend asking "why" only rarely, and only when there is already a solid basis of trust built up between you and the listener. Even then, rephrasing the question without the "why" often works better: "How come?" or "What situations bring up that feeling in you?"

When To Use Open-Ended Questions

We can use Open-Ended Questions whenever we want to get closer to someone, learn more about them, or build a greater level of trust between us. In other words, they help create friendships and bolster loving partnerships, and they can be useful anytime we'd like our partner to share more information with us. There's plenty we can learn from each other, and so we're wise to sprinkle Open-Ended Questions liberally into our conversations every day.

Try them out

Strike up a conversation (using Open-Ended Questions) with a friend, relative or acquaintance you'd like to get to know better. Practice using Open-Ended Questions for as long as you are sincerely interested in hearing more. When you're through, ask yourself: How did I feel while using Open-Ended Questions? How did they affect my feelings about myself? How did they affect my relationship with my discussion partner? How does this conversation compare to conversations I've had with this person in the past?