The Art of the Open Question

The Art of the Open Question

open questioningOne of the big challenges in communication workshops we do is helping develop the art of open questioning. It is important at the outset in this discussion not confuse the skill of asking a question as a ‘technique’ with the disposition of ‘suspending agenda’ and relinquishing control. If you can’t suspend agenda and relinquish control, you will never ask open questions or have an open conversation.

When we ask in a workshop ‘what is an open question?’ we always get the right answer, ‘it’s a question that doesn’t get a yes or no answer’. Whilst this is correct this isn’t really what open questioning is about. Even though we give attendees a template to help with open questioning, many struggle because open questioning is not really about a questioning technique.

If one approaches a conversation from the typical controlling ‘safety mindset’, it won’t matter what you ask, it will be a closed conversation. Ah, yes, I have done my four conversations for this month, safety achieved. In all the walks I have been with GMs, CEOs and executives scheduled to do conversation walks, I have rarely ever witnessed one ‘suspend agenda’, ‘relinquish control’ and ‘listen’.

These so called ‘interactions’ or ‘engagements’ can never be an open conversation if they come from the typical ‘safety mindset’. The safety mindset is one indoctrinated by the WHS curriculum that teaches that the safety representation is about being the repository of all knowledge. This is why there is such a thirst in Safety for downloading checklists and techniques. This is why Safety so often seeks the ‘silver bullet’. This quest for getting it ‘right’ is often the very thing that retards an open conversation.

In our workshops on Risk Intelligence (what we call your ‘Risk iCue’) we often practice conversations in class, not so much to perfect a style but to demonstrate the challenges of ‘suspending agenda’, ‘relinquishing control’ and ‘listening’. It is only when these three forms of intelligence have been learned that open questioning techniques become useful.

So lets have a look at these three foundations of open questioning.

Suspend Your Agenda

Suspending agenda is not about not believing anything, nor is it about having no agenda. Rather, suspending agenda means one orients oneself to the other person:

  1. Without thinking of what to say next.
  2. Not second-guessing answers.
  3. Not thinking about regulations or finding error.
  4. Being oriented towards the other person and,
  5. Facilitating the other to ‘discover’ and articulate how they tackle risk.

It is important to not play the role of ‘brother/sister’s keeper’. Safety is not a Patriarchal activity ( but a ‘helping’ activity. I am not ‘my brother’s keeper’. The crazy contradiction about the ‘safety is a choice you make’ mantra in Safety is that orthodox safety doesn’t really believe this. If it did, it would leave that choice to the worker, not dominate the worker and tell them what choice to make! If a worker makes a choice (in rushing, overconfidence or risk arrogance) and they hurt themselves, I am not responsible for that choice. If there reverse was the case then safety people would have to be present on all sites and in all places (omnipresence) to ensure a safe workplace.

Suspending Agenda means leaving patriarchy behind when you start a conversation. Even if you first question is ‘g’day, how are you goin?’

Relinquishing Control

One of the grand delusions of Safety is the fixation on two words ‘hazards’ and ‘controls’. The focus is on objects and power. Power in the object??? And the power to control, through decision making.

Relinquishing control is about facilitating ownership for Risk Intelligence in another person. If I take any control in a conversation then there will be no discovery or ownership. I then jump in my car, drive away and the worker learns and owns nothing. Nothing changes.

Monological safety is the safety of telling, not the safety of respecting, trusting, helping and listening.


Whenever I do a discourse/language/culture audit with executives in safety, the word ‘listening’ rarely surfaces. Similarly, the word ‘helping’ is also absent. In testing availability bias in a group, what is most available is: PPE, hazards, controls, legislation, regulation, policing etc. The focus is always on the executive not on the worker. It is most often assumed that the worker is dumb so, they need a dose of dumb down safety. Tell them what to do and leave.

In order to listen one has to ask a question that facilitates a narrative in the other. Simple questions like: ‘can you step me through what you are doing?’ or ‘can you tell me about your work activity?’ are a good start but must be followed up by ‘no judgment’ and ‘no correction’. If you are annoyed by something you deem to be unsafe, ‘tactically ignore’ it and keep the flow of questions and listening going. Trust that they will ‘discover’ the risk, don’t jump in with any of the following:

  1. Manipulative questions
  2. Leading questions
  3. Interrogative questions
  4. Punishing questions

None of these questions help to establish relationships, build trust and foster ownership of risk. Yet, in my walkarounds with safety people they are the most commonly used questioning style.

There are countless books and websites that give examples about effective questioning skills. Questioning technique can only be wise and mature after we get a wise and mature disposition towards another in place. This is the foundation for ‘meeting’.

Holding a meeting or meeting someone is not ‘meeting’ unless one can ‘suspend agenda’, ‘relinquish control’ and ‘listen’.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

2 Replies to “The Art of the Open Question”

  1. Excellent article Rob! You know, when I first began my real training in asking open questions with Hayden about 1 year ago, the part that was challenging at first was suspending my own agenda and letting go of being the “expert” in that process. Ellul and Schein helped in this regard as much as anything but also just practicing the process with Hayden helped me develop this skill. I am so much better at doing investigations now than ever and it all starts before I say anything to the person or people involved; it starts with suspending my own agenda.

  2. Great feedback Dyno. The change to SPoR makes such a difference. No silver bullets, no spruiking nonsense, no super systems, silly zero or 1,2,3 or 4, no war stories or shaming, just the basics devoid of ‘technique’. Amazing how Safety would prefer the bells and whistles that don’t work!

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