closed question usually receives a single word or very short, factual answer. For example, “Are you thirsty?” The answer is “Yes” or “No”; “Where do you live?” The answer is generally the name of your town or your address.
Open questions elicit longer answers. They usually begin with what, why, how. An open question asks the respondent for his or her knowledge, opinion or feelings. “Tell me” and “describe” can also be used in the same way as open questions. Here are some examples:
- What happened at the meeting?
- Why did he react that way?
- How was the party?
- Tell me what happened next.
- Describe the circumstances in more detail.
Open questions are good for:
- Developing an open conversation: “What did you get up to on vacation?”
- Finding out more detail: “What else do we need to do to make this a success?”
- Finding out the other person’s opinion or issues: “What do you think about those changes?”
Closed questions are good for:
- Testing your understanding, or the other person’s: “So, if I get this qualification, I will get a raise?”
- Concluding a discussion or making a decision: “Now we know the facts, are we all agreed this is the right course of action?”
- Frame setting: “Are you happy with the service from your bank?”
A misplaced closed question, on the other hand, can kill the conversation and lead to awkward silences, so are best avoided when a conversation is in full flow.
This technique involves starting with general questions, and then drilling down to a more specific point in each. Usually, this will involve asking for more and more detail at each level. It’s often used by detectives taking a statement from a witness:
“How many people were involved in the fight?”
“Were they kids or adults?”
“What sort of ages were they?”
“About fourteen or fifteen.”
“Were any of them wearing anything distinctive?”
“Yes, several of them had red baseball caps on.”
“Can you remember if there was a logo on any of the caps?”
“Now you come to mention it, yes, I remember seeing a big letter N.”
Using this technique, the detective has helped the witness to re-live the scene and to gradually focus in on a useful detail. Perhaps he’ll be able to identify young men wearing a hat like this from CCTV footage. It is unlikely he would have got this information if he’s simply asked an open question such as “Are there any details you can give me about what you saw?”
Leading questions try to lead the respondent to your way of thinking. They can do this in several ways:
- With an assumption – “How late do you think that the project will deliver?” This assumes that the project will certainly not be completed on time.
- By adding a personal appeal to agree at the end – “Lori’s very efficient, don’t you think?” or “Option Two is better, isn’t it?”
- Phrasing the question so that the “easiest” response is “yes” – Our natural tendency to prefer to say “yes” than “no” plays an important part in the phrasing of questions: “Shall we all approve Option Two?” is more likely to get a positive response than “Do you want to approve Option Two or not?” A good way of doing this is to make it personal. For example, “Would you like me to go ahead with Option Two?” rather than “Shall I choose Option Two?”
- Giving people a choice between two options – both of which you would be happy with, rather than the choice of one option or not doing anything at all. Strictly speaking, the choice of “neither” is still available when you ask “Which would you prefer… A or B?” but most people will be caught up in deciding between your two preferences.
Note that leading questions tend to be closed.