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Challenging the Open Question Paradigm

Updated on December 17, 2017

A False Paradigm

A paradigm is a theory or belief system that guides the way we do things. It can be defined as a pattern or model; a set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitute a way of viewing reality. It’s easy to buy into a paradigm when it makes sense and you know no better. It isn’t however always the wisest thing to do.

This article challenges the paradigm of how to ask Open Questions. Millions of people have been taught that Open Questions start with the words ‘Who’ ‘What’ ‘When’ ‘Where’ ‘Why’ and ‘How’. Do they really? Another paradigm many have bought into is that a Closed Question is one that provokes a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer and therefore, if someone can’t reply with a yes or a no, then the question is Open. This is false logic.

The type of question does not depend upon how it is answered but rather on how well intention has been communicated. You cannot control another’s response. Sometimes a closed question will elicit a detailed response and vice-versa. By understanding the purpose of an Open Question however, you can give yourself the best chance of communicating your intention, being clearly understood, and receiving the type of response you are seeking.


The ‘Five Ws and an H’ are questions whose answers are effective in information-gathering. They are often mentioned in journalism, research, investigations, etc., about how to get the complete story on a subject. For example:

  • Who is it about?
  • What happened?
  • When did it take place?
  • Where did it take place?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How did it happen

This style of questioning usually uncovers the facts necessary for a report to be considered complete. But let’s not confuse this with the concept of Open Questions.


What is the intention of an Open Question? It is to draw out a more detailed response; to encourage someone to open up (we should refer to them as Open-Up Questions). But let’s speak plainly - The purpose of an Open Question is to get the other person to talk lots.

Having clarity of purpose or intention, it’s easy to test the paradigm. Take a look at the following:

  • Who did you meet last night?
  • What is your name?
  • When did you get here?
  • Where do you live?
  • Why do you need to see him?
  • How was school?

Do any of the above questions clearly communicate the real intention of an Open Question? In other words, do any of them say, without doubt, ‘Talk lots to me’? If there is any doubt, then there is a chance that the intention won’t be clearly perceived. I’m sure that you are familiar with the question, “How was school?” How do children usually respond when asked this question? They certainly don’t see it as an invitation to talk lots about their recent school activities. And what’s more, this question is often asked when the child’s attention is occupied in some activity or when the parent is multi-tasking, possibly packing away the groceries for example. And so overall, there is no way that the question can be perceived as a genuine request for lots of information. Consider the alternative of a parent waiting until the child is not involved in an activity, facing the child, maintaining a comfortable eye-contact and asking, “Tell me more about some of the things you’ve been doing at school lately, I’d really like to know how things have been for you.” The chance of the child opening up is much better than just, “How was school?”

Another mistake that many make is trying to replace the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, etc., with other words or phrases. Describe to me in detail, tell me, talk me through, etc. are all phrases that appear to be an effective way of communicating ‘Talk lots to me’. But if you are relying on a word or phrase to do the work for you then you may as well revert back to the old paradigm. If your intention is to get the person to open up to you, just think of the most obvious way you could communicate this in your own natural style. “Describe to me absolutely everything you did this weekend”, doesn’t exactly sound like a genuinely interested and natural approach.

Questioning Comes From a Deep Interest

Our intentions towards others are determined by our beliefs and values and they run deep. They are not a collection of skills and techniques, and because humans have such excellent intent detectors, it has to be sincere. You are more likely to improve your questioning techniques by developing a genuine interest in others. Good questions come, just like active listening, from a deep interest and flow naturally from the dialogue.

Why Use Open Questions?

Good Open Questions can stimulate conversation, create comfortable rapport, allow freedom of expression (while you listen of course), and avoid the harsh interrogation style that using just Closed Questions creates.

Put It to the Test

Try it out now! Phrase a question in such a way that it is absolutely obvious that you want someone to talk lots, and notice the difference. And remember that as soon as someone begins to respond to your question, your role needs to change to that of listener if you really expect them to open up to you. You will find it a very effective and worthwhile paradigm shift.


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    • Russ Baleson profile image

      Russ Baleson 4 years ago from Sandhurst, United Kingdom

      Thanks Keith. Beware of unchallenged paradigms. :)

    • profile image

      Keith 4 years ago

      Brilliant article. Brave man is he who challenges paradigms such as this.

    • Russ Baleson profile image

      Russ Baleson 4 years ago from Sandhurst, United Kingdom

      That is praise indeed, thank you.

    • ocfireflies profile image

      ocfireflies 4 years ago from North Carolina

      Information that educators should read. Thanks.