Asking Open and Honest Questions

A DEFINITION An Open and Honest Question is one that you cannot anticipate the answer to, nor do you have an expectation for what the answer should be. For example: What was easy? What was difficult? What surprised you? What did you learn?

It’s a practice that takes intention and discipline. Often questions are “little speeches” in disguise, or ways of spotting a weakness in the other person’s position and trying to change his/her mind, or nudges to move us toward a predetermined goal. The practice of asking open and honest questions helps inquiry and discernment that moves us beyond our normal patterns of communication. Honest, open questions are the ones that create space for exploratory conversations, generate new insights, forge new relationships between ideas and people, and reveal resources within and among us that can help us achieve a shared goal. They slow the pace of inquiry, allowing us to listen and understand while suspending disbelief or judgement, which can deepen the “relational trust” on which so much depends.

Shifting Between Open and Instrumental

Honest, open questions are not appropriate for all situations—sometimes questions need to be more instrumental. For example, asking about IRS compliance or the size of a project budget. Even then, it helps to pay attention to moments when you might learn more by getting beyond simple answers. It is a gift to be listened to for understanding and without judgement. Shift into this higher gear for these reasons:

  • The person talking and the person listening need a deeper exploration of an issue.
  • There is a felt need to step back from jumping to solutions, assigning blame, or approaching with a specific end in mind.
  • Your partner and team are ready to discover their own wisdom and resourcefulness—including insights from life experiences.

What Impact for Your Work?

All people yearn to be heard. Open and honest questions help surface human resourcefulness and foster a sense of community with colleagues in service of shared goals. If you believe that to be true, how would your philanthropic practice benefit from fostering honest conversations and developing trustworthy relationships?

“Yes, perhaps this gift (of questions) is your answer.” —Denise Levertov

Try This!

Questions that require a yes or no answer tend to close down inquiry. Instead ask questions that help open or expand people’s thinking about the issue or options. For example:

  • You are talking to a grantee about a project that is floundering. You said this was an impossible situation. Could you say more about what that means to you?
  • You sense that the budget of an application was sized to fit what might get funded. You want to understand the underlying assumptions about a budget. I see your proposal is for x dollars. Tell me what assumptions and trade-offs you made to get there? What would you do if the budget were twice as large or half the size?

Created by Tara Reynolds, Courage & Renewal® Facilitator and Co-Founder of WholeHeart, Inc.