Open-ended questions are ones that leave lots of space for the person replying to do so in their own way. A good example of an open-ended question is: “What would you like me to cook for dinner?”, whereas “Do you want chicken for supper?” is an example of a closed-ended question.
In the first example there is a space to express preferences and even enter into a conversation, while the closed-ended question just requires a “yes” or ‘No”. Sometimes closed-ended questions are useful when you want quick and limited information, but they are not very helpful when you want to communicate more fully, learn more about your partner’s world, and develop intimacy.
Knowing the difference between open-ended vs closed-ended questions can have a huge impact on your relationship satisfaction.
As relationships develop it is not uncommon for our curiosity about our partner to lessen and open-ended questions to diminish as a result. To illustrate this, let’s consider a couple – Tamsin and David – who came to see me after Tamsin had a brief affair with a work colleague. She did not want to split up with David but said that her colleague had made her feel attractive and worthwhile, while David no longer found her interesting.
Open-ended questions are a great way to find out more about your partner and convey the important message that their experience is important to you and you want to hear about it.
Attachment theory explains how important it is for each partner in a relationship to be seen and known by the other as this helps them to feel close and safe. Open-ended questions are a great way to find out more about your partner and they convey the important message that their experience is important to you and you want to hear about it. They are also an “invitation to dance” – that is, to enter into a conversation.
The good news is that just by asking your partner more open-ended questions you can develop a greater interest in each other. I invited Tamsin and David to practice open-ended questions by going on a ‘date night’ together and pretending that they knew very little about each other. I reminded them to avoid the kind of questions that could be answered by yes or no, and instead leave space for their partner to respond. Here are a few examples I gave Tamsin and David to start them off.
Looking for more examples of open-ended questions to ask in a relationship? Download Paired for daily questions to answer with your partner.
Tamsin and David really enjoyed their date night and discovered some new and interesting things about each other. They also enjoyed the sense of intimacy that the conversation had brought.
Good open-ended questions usually start with "why," "how," and “what" and are motivated by a curiosity about your partner and desire to get to know each other better.
Keep it light. The best open ended questions are enjoyable for both sides. Try to make it enjoyable and playful, and avoid topics that are highly charged. The aim is simply to learn more about your partner’s world.
Find the right time. It can be difficult to squeeze in time to give our partner our complete attention, especially when we have so many things on our mind each day.
When asking open-ended questions, in order to fully engage in a conversation together, try to find a time when both of you are calm and not distracted, stressed or in a rush. Sit down quietly with your partner, at a time when interruptions are unlikely. If you're both busy working from home, this might mean setting aside a dedicated lunch break to spend together or getting up early to talk over breakfast.
Listen actively. When you chat, don't just listen with your ears, listen with your body. Make eye contact and lean into the conversation. Also, try to eliminate all distractions that may influence the ability to focus on your partner – turn off the laptop, put your phone away, switch off the TV and settle any little ones!