How to Ask Open-Ended Questions in Conversations

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Your mind is racing. Surely someone’s going to say something? They’ve got to! This is far too painful. Maybe you could say something… but what?

We’ve all felt that hot prickling feeling on the back of our necks when we realize that a conversation is just not happening. But why isn’t the chat flowing?

Well, you could put it down to “we just don’t click”. But the fact is, it’s very possible to have a good conversation even when you don’t “click” with the person you’re talking to. People do it every day.

Doctors, journalists, therapists, business leaders, and more are all forced to build relationships with people they wouldn’t meet up with after work. So how do they do it?

Scour the textbooks, and you’ll find a conversational tool crop up time and time again: open-ended questions.

Here we take a look at what open-ended questions are and how you can use them to keep conversations flowing, even when you run out of things to say.

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What Are Open-Ended Questions?

Open-ended questions are those that encourage detailed and considered responses. Perhaps the most famous of them all is the psychologists’ favorite: “How does that make you feel?”.

The opposite of open-ended questions is (you guessed it) close-ended questions. These will typically require one-word responses with little need for expansion.

Benefits Of Open-Ended Questions

Doctors, journalists, and therapists have been utilizing the power of open-ended questions for decades. But for the rest of us, here are four ways in which they will improve your conversations:

They Encourage a More Thoughtful Response

Open-ended questions demand that the respondee consider their thoughts and feelings on the subject.

For example: “How do you feel about last night’s hockey game?” requires the respondee to examine their position on the game. Did they enjoy it? Were they happy with the result? Did they feel it was fair?

They Give You Multiple Areas to Continue the Conversation

Thanks to the in-depth answers required by open-ended questions, you should have a lot more information to use for a follow-up topic. Pick an area that you are comfortable with and run with it.

They Help You Bond with the Respondee

When you ask an open-ended question, you’re essentially challenging that person to open up to you. You’re creating a situation where they need to consider their thoughts and feelings and then show them to you through their response.

This reciprocal sharing of information will undoubtedly bring you closer to the person you’re talking to.

They Require You to Do Less of the Talking

It’s tough (almost impossible) to have a great conversation when you’re the only one blabbing away. Open-ended questions require your conversation partner to talk more, which, in turn, means you can talk less.

Writing in Psychology Today, leadership professor Ronald E Riggio Ph.D. says good conversations need to be balanced. In a two-person dialogue, aim for around 50-50.

Negatives Of Open-Ended Questions

There aren’t a whole load of negatives with open-ended questions, but there are some times when they may not be quite right for the situation.

In a Conversation Where You Need a Straight Answer

sometimes you need an unequivocal response. At work, you might need to know: “Did you send that letter?” for example. Anything other than a “yes” or a “no” would be unhelpful.

When They Are Too Broad

You don’t want to ask an open-ended question that is far too broad. It needs to be closed enough that the respondee doesn’t feel overwhelmed with the scope of the potential answer.

For example, heading into a conversation with someone new at a party and starting with: “What’s your thoughts of the world and its geopolitical situation?” might be a bit too big of an opener.

Start smaller. I find: “Hello, how are you?” works well.

How To Use Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions should be used when you want to expand the conversation and get someone talking. They should be used to understand more about people and to find common interests or at least a point of discussion.

In essence, they can be used in pretty much every area of your life to help develop your relationships. At work, they can help you better understand your co-workers, and at home, it can help you connect with your friends and family more.

You can turn almost any question you like into an open-ended question. Let’s take a look at these two examples.

  • Option A: Do you like this restaurant?
  • Option B: What are your thoughts on this restaurant?

You are, essentially, asking a very similar thing.

However, the first question is a close-ended question. The answers you could receive are limited to “yes”, “no”, or any similar variation. So what have you learned about the other person? Not very much at all. Where can you go from there? Not very far.

The second example, on the other hand, is an open-ended question. There is an almost endless possibility of answers you could receive.

Yes, worst case scenario, they could say “not much”, but there are also many other responses they could give, each of which will tell you a little about that person.

Once they have revealed their feelings towards the restaurant, you can start to engage with them on a much deeper level.

Should You Ever Use Close-Ended Questions In A Conversation?

Absolutely. Close-ended questions are fantastic for finding out specific pieces of information about someone. If you already know someone is a baseball fan, you could ask them, “what’s your favorite baseball team?”

The answer may be short, but you can still learn a lot about them from it. Let’s say they reply: “The Chicago Cubs”. It’s a short answer, but there are lots to go off there. If you know something about baseball, you could talk about the team, how their season’s going, etc.

If you don’t follow baseball, there’s still plenty of options to choose from. Asking whether they are from Chicago could be a good route to go down. It steers the conversation away from baseball, but you’ve still gleaned some personal information about them.

Examples Of Open-Ended Questions To Ask In Conversations

If you sometimes struggle to hold down a conversation, then it’s good practice to start increasing the number of open-ended questions you ask.

Typically, they’ll begin with “why”, “how”, or sometimes “what”. Here are a few basic examples that can be used in almost any conversation.

  • How do you feel about ______?
  • What was it like in ______?
  • What were the reasons you chose ______?
  • How would you describe ______?
  • What was your experience of ______ like?
  • Why do you enjoy ______?
  • What would you do if ______?

How Do You Feel About Trying Open-Ended Questions For Yourself?

All of us will benefit from increasing the number of open-ended questions we ask. They are such a powerful conversation tool that you might almost feel like they are a life-hack of sorts. But they’re not.

You simply turn your questions from closed- to open-ended and all of a sudden you’re a dialogue master.

They can benefit relationships in all areas of your life: personal, romantic, and work. And the best thing of all? No more teeth-achingly horrible situations where no one is saying anything. Just smooth-flowing conversation.

Additional Resources

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About the author

Sam Murray
Sam is a freelance writer and editor-in-chief of thebackpackersdiningclub.com. His happiness is found at a taco stand.

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