Whether it is interviews or sales meetings your power is your ability to discover needs, preferences, biases and roadblocks. They all depend on “letting the person” give you information that you can’t even imagine to ask for directly. That’s where the power of open-ended questions come from.
Let’s see some examples:
Interview question: You have 1.5 year of experience, please tell me what you learnt in these 1.5 years that is beyond your technical skills?
Now this question is much better than asking – 1) Are you a team player or 2) Give me examples of teamwork. Why? Because when you ask an open ended question, the person inadvertently tells you “what is really important to them” and “why”. The priority and emphasis teamwork gets in their response to the open question tells you more about their real teamwork skills than any answer to a direct teamwork question.
Sales question: How do you FEEL about your company culture and what would you like to change about it? Now while this question is specific to “company culture” it is still open-ended and not loaded towards a specific problem your company solves. This builds trust. Everyone can see through loaded questions from sales people.
An open-ended question in sales, shows that you are honestly trying to understand their issues and concerns and not just manipulating them towards the problems you are solving.
Review question (face-to-face verbal): Tell me how you have contributed and grown in your role? Now this may not be comprehensive as a review form but it is very powerful. The review form usually has “specific skills and traits” covered and people are apt at “requesting higher ratings and even defending ratings” when it comes to specific areas. On the other hand, when they are asked an open-ended question, the onus of “contribution and impact level” definition is left on them.
Getting the most out of open-ended questions
Once the other person responds to open ended question, it is up to you to not take simplistic answers and dig deeper. So if a candidate says – I became good at teamwork, you can then ask – why is that important and please share an example where it helped.
Sometimes you may also get “surface level answers” or “false indicators” – like in a review a person may say – “I worked hard throughout the year”. I would in this case say something like – “that is good. What I am really trying to understand is that what impact you had uniquely besides completing routine expectations”.
When I reflect back on effectiveness of my interactions, I realize that most of the ones that started with specific questions were less effective. The ones that started with open-ended questions were more effective as it allowed “possibilities” I did not think of to surface.
Now, I try to start as many discussions with open-ended questions. Give it a try, stay open and see what difference it makes.