Change Your Style of Inquiry and Watch Your Business Thrive in New Ways


How asking open-ended questions improves relationships and, ultimately, your bottom line


Powerful open-ended questions are a fixture in any coach’s or mediator’s toolkit and can just as easily be adopted by small businesses for their own purposes.

Their use shows respect for and trust in the other, as in: I don’t know or need to presume what you have to say, so I will ask in an attentive, non-threatening manner so you feel comfortable being truthful.

Their use encourages the other to open up, vent, reveal what’s on their mind, get to the heart of the matter, etc.

Their use sets the stage for person- and relationship-building responses. When the other is at ease honestly expressing themselves, the other can reply in validating, honoring, appreciative, and empathic ways.

Their use fosters future-oriented, solutions-oriented, holistic, and restorative ways of thinking.

What is a powerful open-ended question? At it’s most fundamental, a powerful open-ended question is one that doesn’t naturally yield a simple “yes,” “no,” or factual answer.

It solicits the recipient’s story, perspective, and understanding by asking “What?” “How?” and “Can you tell me more?” type questions.

It avoids asking “Why?” which can make the listener throw up their defenses or even invent a reason — quite a natural impulse — as in, “I did it because…” (Now that you’ve asked, an explanation must be given even if it was not the main thing someone had wanted to communicate!)

It is direct, in service of the other’s interests and concerns, and not intended to mislead or manipulate.

Adopting open questioning in our microbusinesses is vital to building strong customer relationships; minimizing the time, financial, and emotional drains of conflict; and gathering needed information to improve our products, processes, and service.

How and when to use an open-ended question for your business? Look at the following examples and consider how they can be modified for common day-to-day scenarios you encounter with customers, vendors, and employees.

After incorporating this approach into your workplace conversations, you should see discernible improvements in mutual understanding, admiration, and relationship satisfaction — for you, and between you and your customers, your vendors, and employees.

Don’t presume to know what is wrong.

  • What is the problem?

  • How did we not meet your expectations?

  • Can you describe what didn’t work for you?

Understand where they’re coming from.

  • How did that affect you?

  • What was the impact on your event?

  • What were you expecting?

  • How would our product have functioned ideally?

Honor their experience.

  • You sound very excited. Can you tell me your feelings about it? (Sure, they’re upset, but consider the difference between enraged, agitated, disappointed, and frustrated. Let them tell you in their own words.)

  • Where are you at with that?

  • What did that experience mean for your family’s vacation?

Be accountable for fixing things.

  • What can we do to remedy this?

  • How can we solve this to your satisfaction?

  • What would you like to see from us?

  • I never intended you to put in so many hours last weekend, how can I make that up to you?

I’d like to insert here that after you give them what they want (if you can), it’s always a good idea when appropriate for the situation to take it a step further. You don’t want to just restore things for a customer to an original state, you want to compensate someone for being inconvenienced because of your company’s actions, inactions, product failure, whatever — and because they matter to you.


Create the conditions to make an ongoing relationship possible.

  • How would you like to proceed?

  • What can we do better next time?

  • Will you describe how you’d like us to alter that going forward?

  • With those improvements made, how can we work together again?

The above all assume a conflict situation, but this manner of questioning can be used in a range of situations for relationship and business benefits:

  • What about this product makes it a great gift for you mom?

  • Tell me what about our store has made you stop in three times this week?

  • How did the project match what you expected?

  • Can you elaborate on why you chose this one?

  • How can we be your go-to company for high-end photography?