When teaching coaching skills to managers I have often noticed that it’s hard for them to move on from the habit of using questions that close down thought processes, rather than opening them up.

This short series of articles suggests some things to look out for in the way you frame questions, if you want to encourage generative thinking (‘generative’ meaning original, creative, not bound by previous assumptions) in your team – whether in coaching, brainstorming, or in an Appreciative Inquiry process.

How closed questions shut down thinking

Closed questions can be ones that demand a simple yes or no answer, or a choice between a set of predetermined choices.

“Do you know what to do?” shuts down thinking by inviting a yes or no answer – if the listener thinks they know but is not quite sure, it would take some mental effort to break out of the binary choice offered and ask for clarification.

“Is it <this> or <that>?” is a slightly more insidious form of closed question. It presents the listener with a set of choices – very often two choices are offered, sometimes more. The danger of this type of question is that it excludes any alternatives other than those presented by the questioner.

The addition of “or what?” to the end of this kind of question theoretically opens some space for alternatives that the questioner has not already thought of. In practice, though, the presented choices will be front of mind for the listener and usually crowd out any other ideas they may have – particularly if the question comes from a boss who is obviously impatient.

Incidentally, the questions people ask give an insight into their thought processes. When I hear a coaching student asking a closed question like “Is your team large or small?”, it tells me that they already have a solution in mind and they are trying to gather information to see if it will work. They may think that they are doing ‘non-directive’ coaching (asking questions that direct the client to find their own solutions) – but what would be the point of gathering this information, if not to test a solution against?

Open questions (like “What could you do?”) are always going to be better in a coaching context, because they allow the client to find their own solutions without being limited by illusory choices imposed by the coach.

Ask Better Questions: How Closed Questions Shut Down Thinking

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