The Most Successful Leaders Ask Open-Ended Questions – Do You?

by Alli Polin on March 12, 2019

A few years ago, I went by another name for a couple of weeks, Juror Number One. It was a medical malpractice lawsuit, and I was fascinated by the jury selection process. The quality of their questions determined the mix of people who held the power. In my opinion, their questions were crappy.  

The defense asked… 

“Do you have a doctor in your immediate family.” 

I answered the question asked. 

“Yes. My father.” 

By the time prospective jurors in the teens and twenties answered, if they had a second cousin once removed who worked in the medical profession, everyone knew about it. No surprise, they were not selected to serve on the jury. 

Neither legal team circled back to broaden their definition of immediate family for all the potential jurors nor did they ask if anyone had an association with the hospital. They also didn’t ask how those relationships, if any, may stop a potential juror from keeping an open mind on the case. Guess nobody cared that my uncle was Chief of Obstetrics at the same hospital as the doctor who was on trial. 

They also never asked the question… 

“Are you familiar with anyone on the legal team?” 

I was 95% sure I was at a party with one of the younger lawyers on the defense team when we were both in High School. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had a vision of him drinking a beer or two when he was underage. We weren’t friends, so it didn’t really matter, but I spent a lot of time trying to remember his name and thought about digging out old yearbooks.

It wouldn’t have surprised if he recognized me too, but he was the junior lawyer at the table, mostly taking notes, and nobody asked his input. It didn’t come up. 

Questions asked and omitted would determine what happened next. I was selected and served for over a week before the case settled. I should never have served on that jury.  

The Quality of a Leader’s Questions Matters

We like to think that leadership is all about doing; action taken, issues resolved. In reality, effective leadership is also about learning. Leaders need to understand the landscape, challenges, roadblocks, opportunities, and ideas. How? They ask great questions.  

Unfortunately, not all leaders have mastered the concept of “great questions” and end up asking questions that match their desired answers. Their questions validate the course of action that they want to take. They don’t seek to understand, they ask to confirm. 

Other leaders ask questions to gather information so they can make a final decision. Just the facts, ma’am. 

Even fewer ask: What do you think? What am I missing? 

The Power of Questions: Closed Questions vs. Open-Ended Questions

During the jury selection, more important than the questions that they didn’t ask, was the kind of questions that they did ask. They were all closed questions.  

Closed Questions: A simple yes or no can answer the question. They can be answered in a single word. 

Examples: 

Any objections? 

Do you think that’s a good idea? 

Can we move on? 

Open-Ended Questions: Tell you about what someone thinks because you ask them to elaborate. It takes more than one word to answer.  

Examples:  

What do you think we need to explore further? 

How would you approach the situation? 

Why would you take that path? 

It all comes down to this: It’s impossible to understand how people think unless you ask. The most powerful questions for leaders (and lawyers during voir dire) are open-ended questions.  

Tips for Open-Ended Questions for Leaders

There’s room for both styles of questions in your life and leadership but learning to ask open-ended questions consistently will transform your leadership, communication, and relationships. 

First, be aware of how your questions influence the answer. Lead with curiosity and put aside your desire to confirm. 

After you’ve asked your open-ended question, stop talking! This may seem obvious, but if you cut someone off or ask another leading question, you’ll never get the full picture.  

Open-ended questions challenge team members to have opinions, articulate their perspectives, and flex their leadership. That’s what every leader wants – a team of thinkers who are empowered to ideate and create stronger outcomes. 

Lastly, when you’re coaching team members, focus on open-ended questions too. Their observations and insights matter, not only your experience and know-how.  

Did you know?: You can spot an open-ended question by the first word – most often it’s what, how or why. 

Is your default asking open-ended questions or is your M.O. questioning to confirm?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™ March 12, 2019 at 9:31 am

Dear Alli,
I was nodding my head as soon as I read the title of your post. Open-ended questions do SO much for leaders and everyone else. They honor others as they ask for their perspectives. They engage, recognize, and empower everyone to be truly involved.

Oddly enough, when I started running #PeopleSkillsChat on Twitter years ago, I realized that open-ended questions were the ONLY type of questions to engage others. And it’s amazing the unique views they produce.

You have taken a humdrum topic that everyone takes for granted and lit it up with its true power.

Bravo,
Kate

Reply

Alli Polin March 13, 2019 at 7:33 am

Well said, Kate! In so many ways open-ended questions are about engagement. Interestingly, I’ve been on chats where some of the questions are yes or no – definitely closed. Others make it clear that there’s likely a right answer and a wrong answer and everyone chimes in with the expected response. It’s hard to stay engaged and want to participate. I know your chat has loyal and engaged participation for a reason!

Alli

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Gary Gruber March 20, 2019 at 7:44 pm

Beyond question is an open-ended statement that may start out with, “Tell me more about……..” Or, “Thinking about the last time you had a similar experience describe how this one is similar or different…..” Those are really disguised questions intended to lower the barrier of a defensive response. Questions often put the listener in the exam mode of a right vs wrong answer like a multiple choice test. Those open-ended questions of “what, how and why” need to be further clarified lest they fall into the trap of what did you do, why did you do it and how did you do it? Detective questioning murder suspect! Thje intentions of the questioner are indeed a key component.

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Karin Hurt March 21, 2019 at 2:33 pm

Love this post. And I suppose if you’re going to be a Juror, Jury #1 is the best one to be 😉 We spend a lot of time talking about the power of open-ended questions when having a coaching conversation. Closed-ended questions in those situations can really shut people down, but open-ended questions (and the dialogue that follows) can be so vital.

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