It’s often said that the best communicators listen more than they talk. Likewise, when they do talk, they often ask more than they opine. Open questions, that is, questions that can’t be answered yes or no, are among the skills I personally use most, particularly helpful in following The Silver Rule. They usually involve one of the words “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “how,” or “why.”
We’ve seen the value of understanding what the other person is really concerned about in building bridges across different perspectives. An open question makes a great follow-up to the “listen, pause, paraphrase” skill.
Joe says, “I’d like the federal government to take on the U.S.-Mexican wall project.”
You pause, listening.
Joe elaborates, “That long border is a portal for terrorists, and it’s impossible to police the whole thing.”
You paraphrase, “If I’m following correctly, you believe a wall is the only practical way to stop terrorists from third countries from entering the U.S. via Mexico. Have I got that right?”
Now you might ask a follow-up question: “What do you think the cleverest, best-financed terrorist would try after such a wall were to be built?” or “How much would it cost to build, staff and maintain the wall?”
Susan: If the feds want to spend money on the Mexican border, they should remove the wall that’s already there in Texas.”
You pause, but Susan doesn’t elaborate. You say, “So you feel we’d be better off with no wall at all, right?”
Now Susan does elaborate, “The existing wall makes border crossing more difficult, but not impossible. So desperately poor people are even more likely to rely on coyotes who mistreat them.”
You paraphrase, “No wall could work perfectly, and so you’re saying any wall exacerbates the dangers of border crossing. Have I got that?”
You ask a follow-up question, “What might work as well as, or better than, a wall in keeping out terrorists from third countries?” or “What else could help protect people from coyotes?”
In both examples, notice how the open question advances the conversation without overtly contradicting Joe or Susan, i.e. without “making them wrong.” Thus, the question avoids or minimizes push back resistance from Joe or Susan. In other words, it helps you follow The Silver Rule.
For examples of complete conversations where open questions lead a person to a conclusion without making him wrong, see “Open a Door, Close an Agreement,” Chapter 10, Bridges to Consensus.
As with other skills, practice asking open questions in non-controversial situations before trying them in political discussions. Use the three rubber band technique to remind yourself to ask three open questions during lunch with a friend. Your friend will love the interest and attention you give her, and you will love the result