Open-Ended Communication

Open-Ended Communication

What is open-end communication? Not surprisingly, our style of communication affects how others interact with and perceive us, as well as what kind of information we can gather.

During any conversation, questions are asked, and answers are given to:

  • Clarify.
  • Obtain information.
  • Bring someone into a conversation.
  • Keep a conversation going

Experts on leadership, relationships, and effective communication favor “open-ended” questions over “closed” or “closed-ended” questions.

“Open-ended” questions vs. “closed questions.”

A closed or closed-ended question is one that calls for a brief response, often one word like yes or no answer, or a selection from a limited number of options, such as a multiple-choice test. It requires little thought, and the response conveys little extra information. Closed questions result in terse answers.

In contrast, open-ended questions do not inherently limit the other party’s response.  Asking open versus closed questions helps many people participate more fully in a conversation.

An open question is one that encourages the person responding to take control of the conversation, which can increase feelings of safety and willingness to express oneself.

Such questions invite a more detailed and wide-ranging conversation compared to only yes/no or limited-response questions.

A common example of an open-ended question often used in job interviews is ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ The answer to this and other open-ended questions will be from person to person, and can only be answered with a unique perspective that usually prompts a longer conversation.

Avoid setting uncommunicative trends with closed questions

 Be careful about the trends you may be setting with the order or type of questions you ask.  If you start with a series of closed-ended questions, this is likely to cause the other person can easily fall into the habit of answering in short phrases, taking on a passive role, and simply waiting for requests for information. It may seem that the questioner is not focused on the individual, but only on the data that he or she can provide.

By using open-ended communications, you set an interested, attentive, interactive example for the other participants in the conversation to follow.  Begin with open questions. If you must ask closed-ended questions, either spread them throughout the conversation to avoid setting a trend or delay asking them until the end.

Open-ended questions help build relationships

When we are in a personal or business relationship with someone, we want to know what makes them tick — what their interests, beliefs, goals, and desires are, what their habits, hobbies, pet peeves, and favorite things are.

Of course, an attentive listener will learn these things over time.  But if you want to get to know someone more quickly, there is no better way than to ask open-ended questions, listen carefully and respond appropriately.    Participate fully in a number of conversations focused on learning about the other person.  Let them talk about themselves.  Be curious and courteous. Identify shared interests, goals, values and opportunities to be helpful. This is the way to develop a relationship: Ask, listen, share, empathize, and connect. And it all starts with open questions and real interest in the responses.   Closed questions would discourage the flow of information, shift the focus

from interest in the person to the factual response, reduce the respondent’s sense of control and resulting relaxation.  Overall, it will impede the formation of a relationship. It is doubtful that anyone would sit still for a sufficient number of closed questions to gather the same amount and type of data that could be gathered through open-ended questioning

Even if you have only a brief opportunity to interact, as in a job interview, open-ended questions help to build positive relationships. The one-word or very brief responses characteristic of closed questions, that answer just what is asked, cannot build any relationship.

Open-ended communication and the law

Despite their usefulness in extracting the maximum amount of information with the least number of questions, open-ended communications are somewhat disfavored in a legal context. At trial, counsel may object either that the form of a question Is improper because it calls for a narrative answer cover or that the testimony of the witness has become a narrative answer. In both cases, the rationale for the objection is that opposing counsel lacks the ability to timely object.  “In the usual case, permitting the witness to testify in a narrative may carry the risk of introducing irrelevant or hearsay testimony before the opposing party has the opportunity to respond.”

(People v. Kline, 414 NE 2d 141, 90 Ill. App. 3d 1008 (1980))

Counsel asking an open-ended question also runs the risk that the answering witness will ramble irrelevantly and confuse the jury, damaging its perception of him or her.  Worse yet, a poorly prepared witness could inadvertently make statements harmful to his or her own interests during a narrative answer.  (These concerns do not apply to written discovery, where open questions are often used to obtain the broadest scope of discovery available. For example, “Please state all facts supporting your claim that the contract has been breached” is clearly calling for a narrative answer but is a permissible interrogatory.

But during live testimony, open questions and narrative answers are rarely allowed or even attempted.  As the court in Kline noted, the objection may properly be overruled if the information called for in the open question is clearly relevant and admissible.

Open questions and narrative answers are sometimes allowed in the interest of judicial efficiency, where the topic is not controversial.  Despite occasional exceptions to the legal dislike for open questions, lawyers are notoriously cautious and prefer to control the flow of information. Therefore, they normally proceed using closed questions by which the witness can be pinned down.

Open questions in arbitration 

Unless the parties have taken the unusual step of applying litigation’s rules of evidence to arbitration, there is nothing preventing the use of open questions or narrative answers in that context. While it is true that potentially inadmissible evidence could be introduced, don’t assume the evidentiary rules in arbitration are the same as the ones in court Understanding the applicable rules of evidence is critical.  Remember that evidentiary rules may vary.

Arbitration hearings are usually free of the evidentiary rules applicable to the court proceedings.  But some will apply.  Know the rules and act accordingly.

Most arbitration providers have rules similar to Rule R-34 of the American Arbitration Association’s Commercial Rules which states: “Conformity to legal rules of evidence shall not be necessary” and “The arbitrator is empowered to decide the admissibility, relevance, and materiality of evidence that is offered.”

It’s not likely that an arbitrator will be very concerned about the possibility of inappropriate evidence being introduced through narrative answers. He or she will either ignore it or give it the weight it merits, as with all evidence.

Indeed, an arbitrator could favor open questions at times. They may be the most effective means of drawing out evidence that gives a full picture of the situation.

Open questions in mediation

Open questions are used frequently in mediation.  They are a quick way of understanding the origins and chronology of the conflict. They allow the parties to stress what they feel is important, perhaps for the first time.

Open questions give the parties a sense of control and serve as a way to allow the expression of strong emotions in a safe way.

Open questions are shown to build trust, a vital commodity for every mediator.  They also reinforce mediator neutrality by letting the elements of a resolution flow from the parties’ open answers to questions like “What would you like to see as today’s outcome?” “Can you think of a resolution that all parties would accept?” “What would have to happen before you could settle this case?” “What are the obstacles to the resolution of this conflict?” And so on. The mediator still may have to get creative to craft a solution. Expectations may have to be adjusted, sometimes dramatically.  But using open questions will build trust, allow emotional expression, reveal information, and lay the foundations for resolution in mediation.

Scott Van Soye
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