Open-ended questions are ones that leave lots of space for the person replying to do so in their own way. An example of such a 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”.
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.
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.
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 sought counselling after Tamsin had a brief affair with a work colleague. Tamsin 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.
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. As part of their therapy, Tamsin and David were invited to practice open-ended questions by going on a “date night” together and pretending that they knew very little about each other. They avoided the kind of questions that could be answered by yes or no, and instead left space for their partner to respond.
Here are a few examples of the open-ended questions they asked:
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.
This week, make time to sit down quietly with your partner, at a time when interruptions are unlikely, and ask them a few open-ended questions. 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.
Judith Lask is a Couple and Family Therapist and the former Head of Family Therapy Training at King’s College London.
She has presented at numerous psychotherapy workshops around the world and contributed to an easy-to-use measure of family functioning called SCORE. She is an Honorary Fellow of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).