Man listening to a woman “Listening is not batting practice, where you hit back everything that comes your way.” –John Gottman

Have you ever been asked a question and felt the other person wanted a specific answer (theirs)? How you ask questions conveys much more information than just the question itself and has a significant impact on the quality of your relationship. Most of the time, the questions people ask each other are statements, opinions, judgments, or directives rather than genuine questions. Usually, we put our opinion out there in tone, body posture, or language by asking closed-ended questions, questions where the response is limited to “yes” or “no.” An open-ended question invites a very different kind of experience; it is an invitation for a dialogue of ideas and feelings, an invitation to dance. Asking open-ended questions requires certain skills, including a sense of security in yourself, trust and respect for your partner’s answers, and openness to opinions different from your own. Asking open-ended questions may just be the best thing you can do for your relationship.

An open-ended question is just that—the answer is open-ended, you are not trying to predict or instruct the outcome but want an authentic response from your partner. Whereas closed-ended questions ask for a one word response, open-ended questions invite discussion and sharing. Open ended questions convey the feeling, “Your experience is important to me and I would love to hear about it.” In contrast, closed-ended questions are more like a duel than a dance; they convey the message, “My experience is more important than yours.”

Open-ended questions express a desire for communication and a fondness for your partner. Benefits of asking these kinds of questions include communicating a deep feeling of respect for your partner, and opening the door to a synergy of ideas. They convey interest and are a bridge for communication, cooperation, and understanding. Open-ended questions allow your partner to share thoughts or feelings and to get into the flow of their thoughts and feelings, whereas closed-ended questions can put pressure on your partner for a quick decision even though he or she may not have decided yet.

The following suggestions can help you use open-ended questions to deepen intimacy:

  1. Self Manage: Be clear of your motives when asking a question. Is it about your experience and needs or are you curious about the other person’s experience?
  1. Separate your wants from your partner’s: Often, communication is shut down when our own wants are prioritized in our questions. By inviting an open-ended response you are increasing the likelihood your partner will reciprocate and ask for your thoughts; you may then reach a compromise on a topic.
  1. Focus Your Questions: If you ask, “What did you do at work today?” You might get, “Nothing” as the answer. But if you ask, “Tell me about the project you are working on?” You may get more of a response and can then broaden into the day in general. Too broad a focus can be confusing and disconcerting; starting with specifics often makes it easier for the other person to answer.
  1. Invite an answer: Ask questions that allow for a greater response than a simple “yes” or “no.” Avoid, “Do you…” and “Is this…” when your goal is to connect and share information. This means that the outcome may be an unknown. Use questions like, “What do you think of…” and “How do you find…?”
  1. Use Mindful Listening: When listening, many people are simply gathering evidence for their rebuttal, waiting for their time to speak and not really listening. Instead, focus on the words your partner is saying and be curious, “I wonder what she thinks of this…?” As Walt Whitman said, “Be curious, not judgemental.” This active listening helps your partner respond in more depth.
  1. Be Okay with no answer: If you partner is not ready to talk, you might not get an answer right away. If you respond with anger, “Well, see if I ever ask you about your day again!” you decrease the likelihood of an answer next time.
  1. Start Small: Practice with topics that are not high stakes issues. Rather than, “What do you think about living together” if this has been a source of contention, talk about the upcoming trip you have been planning together “How do you feel about staying longer at Disneyland?” Once you have built open-ended questioning skills, you can move to bigger issues.

Examples of open-ended questions:

  • What do you think of your job?
  • How does this house suit you?
  • Tell me more about this issue.
  • How are your tennis lessons working out for you?

Compare these to the following closed-ended questions:

  • Do you like your job?
  • That movie was too long, wasn’t it?
  • Do you think I am right or not?
  • Do you like tennis?

Closed ended questions have their use; at the drive-through asking, “Would you like small or medium?” makes more sense than “How do you feel about medium sized drinks?” Open-ended questions are useful when intimacy, connection, and understanding are the goals. They are the Lego blocks of relationships, the small pieces that, when put together over time, create a sense of intimacy, trust, closeness. Asking open-ended questions means “Please share your thoughts and emotions with me. I value you and I value your ideas.”

How do you ask open-ended questions in your relationships? (See, it’s easy to do) One way to do so is to remind yourself that some questions are about much more than the answers—they are an invitation to dance. How do you feel about dancing?

References: Gottman, J. (2001). Making marriage work. (audio speech). Better Life Media. Rogers, C. (1995). On becoming a person. New York: Mariner.