Open Questioning Skills for Remote Leaders and Projects

Most leaders understand how open questions get better information than closed questions. We also think we're pretty good at asking them on virtual meetings and webinars. We're wrong.

 Closed questions, as a reminder, are those that allow for a one word or short answer. (You get me?) They are not evil, they just don't really give you a lot of information. Especially in the vacuum of cyberspace.

Open questions require not only a longer answer, but tend to give you a lot more insight into what the person is actually thinking (so what do you think of this piece so far? Does it resonate with you?).

Think about asking your kid, "did you brush your teeth?". The answer might be "yes" but it might really mean several things:

  • I brushed my teeth exactly as you asked, Dad
  • I got the toothbrush wet, took two swipes across the front two teeth, spit and quit
  • I was going to, but got distracted by the cat
  • No, but if I tell you I did I won't get in trouble

    Any parent foolish enough to accept that "yes" at face value deserves whatever dental bills are coming. We look the little tyke in the eye to see if they're lying to us. Are they squirming? Turning red? We rely on past behavior. Do they have a pattern of fibbing about this? We ask follow up questions like, "if I go check your toothbrush, will it be wet?"

    Now, our remote teammates are not four year-olds. Yet, we don't always get proactive, forthright, precise answers to our closed questions. Let's take an all too common example.

    You ask your team on a conference call, "does everyone understand what I've just told you?" or more generically, "does anyone have any questions?" You get some a couple of muted "yesses" and a lot of silence. Since nobody said anything, and they are all smart, honorable people, it's safe to assume that they understand and don't have any questions. Right?

    Wrong. You know better. Those yesses (or more precisely the lack of aggressive "nos") could mean any number of things in the real world:

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