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What Was the Question?
Questions are a tremendous tool when it comes to learning, but communication problems can arise when people don’t answer questions as asked.
Questions are at the heart of what drives people to learn. But in utilizing questions as part of any team-oriented dialogue, learning and development professionals should take care to make sure the right type of questions — open-ended versus closed-ended — are being used.
To understand the difference between the results achieved by asking open-ended questions versus closed-ended ones, consider this example. When someone visiting an unfamiliar place asks a friend, “Can you tell me what I should see while I’m in your city?” the answer is most often a place or a monument of some sort. But that does not actually answer the original question. If the city native has an idea of what the person should see, the correct answer would simply be yes.
In listening carefully to conversations, it becomes clear that very rarely do people pose open- ended questions. Yet, almost always, the answer is given as if an open-ended question was asked. Additionally, the person answering tends to add many unrelated, additional comments.
Meanwhile, when someone asks a closed-ended question, he or she may actually want an open-ended answer. When someone asks, “Can you tell me what I should see while I’m in your city?” the person answering understands that the person inquiring wants to see something while he or she is there, or the question wouldn’t be asked. So the questioned person bypasses the actual question and jumps right to the assumed intent of the question. Not only that, but he or she tops it off with some other useful facts about the city.
If the person inquiring really wants to know what to see in the city, why didn’t he or she just ask that? Perhaps it’s because before the person questioning can ask what to see, he or she must first find out whether the questioned person has the information. Yet, if the person inquiring were to ask, “What should I see?” the questioned might answer with “I don’t know” if he or she didn’t have any suggestions.
This is not to say that open-ended questions are inherently better. Open-ended questions have a function, as do closed-ended questions. Open-ended questions are useful when learners are exploring and gathering additional information. Closed-ended questions are great when learners are trying to narrow down the focus.
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