A closed question is one that expects a yes or no answer. Closed questions tend to shut down the conversation, and direct it in the directions implied by the question. Examples:

  1. Have you thought of taking more breaks?

  2. Have you spoken to him about it?

  3. Are you going to put up with it, or say something?

  4. Is it a large team?

  5. Are you ready?

Often closed questions are a way for the coach to give advice while fooling themselves that they are not, as in examples one and two above. Note how the questions exclude the possibility of doing anything else.

Question three is a more subtle example – two apparent choices are given, but the question presupposes there are only two choices available.

Question four is more subtle still, and therefore a more dangerous temptation for the coach because it is harder to spot yourself doing it. On the surface it is gathering information – but it’s only gathering information that the coach expects to find. There may be other relevant resources here that this question will miss.

If you believe in non-directive coaching, the learner is the expert. You are not there to solve their problems for them. Yet question four suggests that the coach already has a solution in mind, and is checking to see that their solution fits. This takes up valuable time that the client could be using to find their own solutions. If coaching is about the learner finding their own solutions, how much background information and ‘understanding’ does the coach need to gather anyway?


More useful questions would be:  

  • “What could you do?”

  • “How have you solved similar problems in the past?”

  • “What do you want to do?”

  • “What will it be like when you have moved beyond this?”

    Note how these are all open questions, allowing the learner to explore their own options and generate their own solutions.

    Question five could be a useful question, even though it is closed. You might use it when the very next step implied by the conversation is that the learner takes action, and you think you know what the answer will be – either looking for a congruent “Yes” when the learner is ready, or something along the lines of “Actually, not quite” if you think there is something else that the learner needs to take into account.

    In general, though, you will be a much more effective coach if you use open rather than closed questions.

    What comments do you have?


    Questions in Coaching (3): Open versus closed questions

    2 thoughts on “Questions in Coaching (3): Open versus closed questions

    • Open/closed questions is important issue in all communication. I participated mediator training, where we rehearsed mediation situations. When mediators used only closed questions the situation felt like interrogation and with open questions it was more like dialogue. So with only closed questions the mediator held the power over parties and with open questions the parties had the power themselves too. Major difference?

    • I hadn’t thought about it this way but you’re right – with closed questions, the conversation is directed down certain channels decided by the questioner. Although the one who answers has a choice to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, that choice is within the frame set by the question. So yes, there is a power issue here as well.

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