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Leaders Use Open-Ended Questions

Posted by: Rod Kurtz on December 17, 2007

Becoming a good listener is not something that happens overnight. Many people in leadership roles are more accustomed to speaking than they are to letting others do the talking.

Exceptional leaders are active listeners. They encourage others to share their ideas and opinions by asking open-ended questions. These kinds of questions typically begin with "what," "how," or "why" and are effective in eliciting responses that clarify the other person’s point of view—thoughts and feelings that may not otherwise be apparent to you.

When talking with your employees, practice asking short and simple open-ended questions such as:

• Can you tell me more about how you see this situation?
• In what way will this affect you?
• How do you feel about this?
• What are your thoughts on this issue?

Pay attention to how your employees answer these questions, and then follow up with closed questions that begin with words such as "so," "do," "which," and "did" to summarize and confirm their (and your) understanding.

One of the best—and most difficult—times to use open questions is when you disagree with what someone has said. Instead of saying "I don’t agree with you," try asking: "What makes you think that?" or "What led you to that conclusion?"

You may learn something, but more important, you won’t have shut down the conversation, which will give you more opportunity to reach a mutual understanding.

Keith Ayers
Integro Leadership Institute
West Chester, Pa.

Reader Comments


January 15, 2008 1:48 AM

I am doing a survery for leadership and I would like to have your help regarding open ended questions to be send to the people.


September 24, 2008 3:42 PM

The question, "Can you tell me more about how you see this situation?" used above as an example of an open-ended question, is technically a closed-ended question. It can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." A more open way to phrase that "question" would be, "Tell me more about how you see this situation."


December 16, 2008 5:32 PM

Dirk is right but generally an employee would be more likely to answer the question with a "No, not really." answer than, "Yes" and not add any other analysis.


May 5, 2009 10:00 AM

Can you tell me more about how you see this situation is closed ended. It requires a yes or no answer.
Should be - Tell me more .... or simply How do you see this situation?


March 14, 2010 3:21 PM

I like to use, "Help me understand ...." This encourages the person to expound further on their thought process.


August 5, 2010 8:54 AM

Very similar situation - and some very pressing deadlines on my front. I have two offers - Company A whom I prefer as they have better security, benefits etc. gave me a verbal offer, but are also doing security checks. Company B - gave me a written offer and would like an answer asap. I don't know what my obligations are if I accept with "B" and then decline when "A" gives me the written! Am I obligated to anything?

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