The transition from closed to open ended questions
What was the first question you remember asking? I wonder that as I observe young children, whose unobstructed questions stream out like water. As you attend school, you learn to confine your questions to Q-A time. Somewhere along the way you realize that questions either have a strong sense of place in your life or they’re more like the ‘what’s for dinner?’ variety.
For years, questions dominated my life. Whether I was on a breaking story or in the studio, it was my job to relate whatever was happening by asking questions of witnesses or experts who would enlighten and inform me and the audience. In most instances I had an agenda, to better understand the situation or uncover something hidden. Inquiry was part of this process, but it was more important to get a specific answer. While I didn’t revel in closed-ended questions, if it got me the answer I was looking for, that was fine. I was a questioning machine.
Two experiences challenged my questioning style.
The first event took place when my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. To better understand how to care for him I took a “Savvy Caregivers” class. On day one, JJ, our very enthusiastic instructor, was clear.
“Stop asking your lovey (her wonderful word for our loved one with Alzheimer’s) questions. It confuses them.”
“Place a glass of water in front of him. If he wants something else, he’ll tell you. By asking him to choose between water and something else, he might get confused. And that’s where agitation can set in.”
Eventually I came on board and communicated the ‘no questions’ mantra to everyone in my dad’s presence. Through the years of his decline, he was rarely frustrated.
The second event was the day I asked one of my adult sons about an event that had transpired the night before.
“Mom, you already know what happened.”
“Yes, but I’d like to hear it from you.”
“It was fine,” was his response.
I was informed, respectfully, that my question about something I already knew the answer to was not an inquiry into how my son was doing. Instead it came across as an interrogation of something that needed no more revelation.
So I began a review of my questioning style. And what I discovered was fascinating and daunting. I did start many of my questions in an accusatory manner, “did you? are you? do you really? is that? why?”
As you might expect, the response to these closed-ended questions was almost always defensive.
A new approach.
Ironically I’ve transitioned into another profession that is steeped in asking powerful questions: life coaching. In every hour of my International Coaching Federation training, the types of questions I’ve been encouraged to ask have transformed how I see myself and the people around me.
I thought back to a few of the questions and statements I’d uttered in the past year when challenged to consider how I pose questions and make statements.
Why did you buy that piece of junk?
Don’t you care about how we feel?
Is that what you’re wearing to dinner?
What were you thinking?
How is your car running?
We’ll miss you, have a great time.
Where is that blue shirt you got last week?
How did you arrive at your decision?
You can feel the tone in each of the original questions just by reading them out loud. They have a squirm factor. The reframed questions don’t judge. They’re real, inquiring questions. And if one was posed to me, I would have no reason to be defensive.
How do you stop using the original questions? By replacing them with the style of the new questions which begin with ‘how? what? where?’ Over and over again. I’m reminded of the words of a friend who pushes me to be a stronger cyclist by telling me it’s all about ‘time in the saddle.’
Every time I use this newfound approach, removing the negative tone, I find that I think differently of the person. It also seems to alter the reception of that question by the receiver, because there is no blame or accusation.
I write sticky notes with the words, ‘how? what? and where?’ and post them on my computer. Every time I’m tempted to launch into, ‘why did you…?’ I pause and attempt to use, ‘what are you learning…? It turns out my brain is creating new neural pathways with these reframed questions. If I must pause and count a few beats — waiting for this language to take hold — so be it.
This isn’t a new idea. For the past several decades Positive Psychology, Appreciative Inquiry, Emotional Intelligence, and a host of other modalities have been inspiring us to look for the best or the best outcome in a person or an organization. They’re based on the premise that, “Human systems grow in the direction of their deepest and most frequent inquiries.” When we begin by reframing something as simple as a question, the result can be dramatically different.
So the next time you’re ready to blurt out, “Why did you dye your hair pink?” I encourage you to pause, breathe and consider a reframe. “What shade of pink are you using?”
What have you got to lose?