This is a highly educational and entertaining exercise on asking open questions. Open questions lead to more information while closed questions lead to a yes/no answer. Open questions are usually much more effective in maximising communication. Unfortunately, most people tend to ask closed questions and it is always a good idea to highlight the differences and encourage people to ask open questions more often.
In addition to practicing asking open questions, this exercise also helps with active listening. Delegates must focus and pay attention to each answer given by a volunteer as they must relate to this immediately through the next question they ask. Hence, this exercise is a great tool to boost communication skills. You can use this exercise for a group of people irrespective of whether they know each other or not. It would still be an effective exercise.
Considering the nature of this exercise, it can also be used as a team building tool, since volunteers need to constantly give information about themselves which can help bring people closer together.
- Ask open questions until a volunteer answers a question you have in mind.
What You Need
A space where a volunteer can sit, and everyone can see the volunteer.
- If you have more than 10 delegates, divide them into groups of 5 and run the exercise in parallel sessions. Otherwise, get all the delegates to go through the same exercise.
- Explain about the difference between open questions and closed questions. Explain that in order to ask open questions they can start the question with one of the following:
- Ask who wants to volunteer for this exercise. They will be roleplaying so expect a person who is comfortable with this.
- Ask the volunteer to leave the room while the group decides.
- When the volunteer has left, ask the group to decide on a question for the volunteer. This should be an open question that doesn’t lead to yes or no answer. For example, delegates may want to find out what was:
- The volunteer’s first car
- The furthest destination the volunteer has travelled to from the current location
- The volunteer’s favourite hobby
- Explain that although this is their mission, the delegates cannot just ask this straight away. At each point they can only ask an open question based on what was just stated by the volunteer.
- Now, ask the volunteer to return.
- Ask the volunteer to kick start the roleplay with a sentence on something that happened today. For example, the volunteer may say:
- “I forgot to put the rubbish out.”
- “On my train journey here, a woman was talking so loudly on the phone that everyone in the coach could hear the whole conversation.”
- Ask the rest of the group to follow from the first statement and ask an open question one at a time that directly relates to it. The rule is that the next open question must include a significant word stated in the previous answer.
- If someone asks a closed question, the volunteer may simply answer yes or no reflexively. Whether the answer is given or not, stop everyone and highlight the issue. Ask the same delegate to have another go and ask an open question.
- Continue until a final open question leads to an answer suitable for the selected mission.
- Explain the mission to the volunteer and congratulate all delegates on accomplishing the mission.
- Let’s go through an example exchange to illustrate. Suppose the mission is to find out what the volunteer’s first car was. The significant words from the previous answer are italicised in each question:
- Volunteer: “On my train journey here, a woman was talking so loudly on the phone that everyone in the coach could hear the whole conversation.”
- Delegate 1: “Where was the train going?”
- Volunteer: “To the London Bridge station.”
- Delegate 2: “How long does it take you to get to the London Bridge station?”
- Volunteer: “It takes me half an hour.”
- Delegate 3: “Does it always take half an hour?” [Oops, that’s not an open question.]
- Volunteer: “No.” [Reflexive answer given before you have time to stop them.]
- You: “Any problems with that last question?” [Expect other delegates to highlight that this was a closed question. Now ask the last delegate to have another go asking an open question.]
- Delegate 3 [Having a second go]: “How can you get there faster than half an hour?”
- Volunteer: “I can drive.” [We are assuming a world with an ideal traffic here, but let’s go with the example.]
- Delegate 4: “What car do you drive?”
- Volunteer: “I drive a BMW.”
- Delegate 5: “When did you get your BMW?” [A better question could have been asked at this point. See the notes below.]
- Volunteer: “I got it three years ago.”
- Delegate 6: “What car did you have before three years ago?”
- Volunteer: “I didn’t. I just cycled around.” [Bingo! Mission accomplished. The first car was BMW.]
- This exchange is simplified to illustrate the point. You should expect that it might take many more attempts and mistakes. The aim is to teach the importance of open questions and get the delegates to exercise active listening, paying attention and staying focused.
- There are several important points to consider as you moderate this exercise:
- Delegates need to ask one question at a time and in the correct sequence. When it is somebody’s turn, others should wait patiently for that person to ask a question. Many might be eager to jump in, but they should refrain from doing so and should not be allowed.
- Ask the volunteer to always state the truth.
- Ask the volunteer to be brief with answers.
- If the volunteer suspects what the mission is, they should do their best to make it difficult for the delegates by giving answers that are not closely related to the mission.
- If you look at the example exchange above, you can see that Delegate 5 could have simply asked, “What was your first car before getting the BMW?”, but instead asked a question that led them astray. This can happen and it is what makes the exercise more interesting and entertaining. It can put other delegates on edge too. This is also part of why delegates may be too eager to jump in and ask the right question out of turn. It will teach them self-restraint.
- If delegates like this exercise and can benefit more from it, you can get them to go through another round with a different volunteer.
- Follow with a discussion.
Explaining the Exercise: 10 minutes
Activity: 20 minutes
Group Feedback: 5 minutes
What did you think of asking open questions? Was it easy to get the volunteer answer the question of your mission? How often did you feel you want to step in to change the direction of questions? How does asking open questions help you in your job?