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How to ask questions that yield information and build relationships

On any given day, we ask countless questions. But do our questions always achieve what we want them to? And what can we do to make them more effective?

Conversation between co-workers

Questions – why we ask

The main purpose of many questions is to elicit information. “When is the meeting?” is clearly meant to yield information about the meeting time. Every day, we ask many of these short, information-gathering questions. But that’s not all.


Sometimes, we ask questions to be polite or make small talk. The cashier at the grocery store or the barista at the coffee shop asking, “How is your day going so far?” are not really expecting a full account of what’s going on in your life. The question is meant to show interest and politeness.

Questions may also be intended to draw you into a conversation and start building a relationship. If you are at a conference and ask a fellow attendee “Did you enjoy the keynote speech?”, that can be a way to start a conversation and a relationship.

Sometimes questions are posed with negative intentions, to disrupt or throw you off. Or a question is meant to express doubt. Imagine a meeting where you suggest a new idea to the team. A team member not in favor of your idea might ask questions that have the intention of highlighting the downsides of your idea, such as “And how are you planning on financing that?”

Closed and open-ended questions

In a conversation, we frequently ask questions to learn more about our conversation partner and their needs, to confirm things, to clarify issues, to give advice, or even to give a command to someone:

  1. Learning about our conversation partner: “What type of product are you looking for?”

  2. Confirming: “Did you say that you would be available on Friday?”

  3. Clarifying: “Could you explain that in more detail?”

  4. Advice: “Why don’t you try talking to Susan directly?”

  5. Command: “Could you complete this by the end of the week?"

In English, there are two main question types: closed questions and open-ended, or simply open questions. Let’s have a look at the difference between the two – and why it matters. (By the way, 2, 3, and 5 are closed questions; 1 and 4 are open questions.)

Closed questions: it's either yes or no

Closed questions are also called “yes/no” questions, because they can be answered with a brief “yes” or “no”. You can also repeat part of the question. Whether you simply respond with “yes” or “no” or add part of the question to your response, the answer will likely not yield much more than what you asked for.

Here are a few examples.

Closed question

Short answer

Longer answer options

Did you finish the report?


Yes, I did. / Yes, I finished it.

Are you satisfied with our product?


No, we're not. / No, we're not satisfied (at all).

Closed question refresher

You probably learned how to form yes/no questions in one of your beginner English classes, but here is a quick refresher. Closed questions start with

· an auxiliary (“helping”) verb, such as “do, did, does, is, are, have, etc.”

· or a modal verb, such as “can, could, will”, etc.

· followed by the subject (we, you, etc.)

· and the main verb (write, meet, etc.) and

· sometimes other sentence parts, such as an object.

Did you write the report?

Did (=auxiliary/helping verb) you (subject) write (main verb) the report (object).

Note: The verb “to be” can also be a main verb:

  • Are you hungry?

  • Is he in the conference room?

Open-ended questions: when you want to find out more

Open-ended questions are also called “w(h)-questions” because they start with a question word and most question words start with “w(h)”: who, when, where, what, why, etc. Open questions cannot simply be answered with “yes” or “no”. They require more information and are therefore also referred to as information questions.

Woman wondering why

Look at these examples:

Open question

Answer options

Where can I find the finished report?

  • I uploaded it to our shared site.

  • It’s on your desk.

  • I’m afraid I haven’t finished yet, but I’ll get it done this afternoon.

How do you feel about our new product?

  • We love the design.

  • The colors are beautiful, but it is really hard to clean.

Open-ended question refresher:

Again, you probably learned how to form these questions in your beginner class. The question word is at the beginning of the sentence, followed be the “helping” word or a modal verb, then the subject, then the main verb, and then other sentence parts, such as an object.

Where can I find the report?

Where (question word) can (modal verb) I (subject) find (main verb) the report (object)?

Note: If the question word is the subject or part of the subject, then you don’t need an auxiliary verb. This is only possible with the question words: who, what, which, and whose.

  • Who wrote the report?

  • Which vendor is better?

Why does it matter?

There are times when a closed question makes sense because you want a decisive, specific answer. You may even want someone to feel the pressure of having to make a decision and commit to something.

But there are times, for example during a meeting or negotiation, when open questions are the more strategic route to go. Generally, open questions yield a lot more information. They give your conversation partner the opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas, which will give you more insights into the person you are conversing with, into their interests and needs. This will allow you to create a connection and establish a relationship.

Open questions encourage discussion and engage the other person. Closed questions tend to shut down conversations very quickly.

Let’s look at the following example to see the difference:

"We have about 10 minutes of meeting time left. Does anyone have any questions about the procedure?" – There is a good chance that the meeting attendees will shake their heads or mumble no as a response to this closed question. Nobody wants to be the one to reveal their lack of understanding. Nobody wants to say: “Yes, I have a question…” In addition, everybody is ready to leave the meeting.

I had experienced the inefficiency of this type of question many times in my own courses before I realized that I had to switch my question technique...

"We have about 10 minutes left before we close. What aspects of the procedure should we review to make sure we are all on track? What would be most helpful to you?" – The person asking assumes that there are things that aren’t clear yet and need explaining – for various reasons: because the procedure is brand new, because it is difficult to understand, because it may not have been explained sufficiently, etc.

This open question style shifts the focus from the person who didn’t understand to the topics that are challenging. It shows the asking person’s understanding and willingness to help.

Your turn

Want to give it a try? Here are a few closed questions for you to play around with and turn into open-ended questions. To help you, I have given you the words of the response, but mixed them up a bit.

Closed question

Your open-ended question (use the words given or come up with your own ideas)

Do you agree with the plan?

How – about – do - the plan – feel – you?

Do you take credit cards?

What – offer – payment – do – options – you?

Can we move the meeting to 9 am tomorrow morning?

What’s – like – tomorrow – schedule – morning – your?

There is usually more than one option when you rephrase a closed question as an open question, depending on what you want to stress or achieve.

Effective communication is not just about grammatical and lexical accuracy, but about employing the right strategies. Reach out to me to find out more about how I can help you develop the communication skills and strategies you need!


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