Open-Ended Questions: #5 of 28 Big Ideas from the World of Coaching

Updated: Jan 6

Photo by Konstantin Sutyagin, from

This article is sixth in a multi-part series that adapts and excerpts my entire book, The Coach Within: 28 Big Ideas for Engaging the Power of Your Own Wisdom, Creativity, and Choices* (Everything Goes Media, 2017).


5. Open-Ended Questions

“A story is open-ended. A story invites you into it to make your own meaning.” — Katherine Paterson

“Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light.” — Theodore Roethke

Asking powerful, relevant, open-ended questions in service of the client and her agenda may be one of the most important skills a coach can cultivate, which means it is not to be underestimated for use on ourselves!


Because I said so.

Oh, is that right?


Ask why? and you get a “because,” a reason (perhaps an accurate one, maybe not), and often a defensive posture and a defensive response.

Ask with is? or a fact-based question and you likely get a yes, no, or a fact (maybe accurate, maybe not) for an answer.

Ask an open-ended question and you get stories, exploration, context, background, musings, release, work. The best open-ended questions for coaching are direct, relevant, and timely. They probe deeply, make an impact, offer perspective, and provide an opportunity for a “reveal.”

See what happens when you ask with who, what, when, where, and how in a manner that’s not about a fixed answer (yes, no, or facts for facts’ sake):

  • Who are the kinds of people I like working with?

  • What made that such an awkward moment for me?

  • When will I be able to get over this break-up?

  • Where can I take my idea next?

  • How will I talk to my children in the future to avoid scenes like the one we had today?

Open-ended questions are a fixture for coaches and using them on yourself — especially instead of the unproductive self-blaming, shaming, trash questions we sometimes punish and limit ourselves with — will open up your awareness, thinking, and options.

Their use encourages us to open up to ourselves, to vent, to uncover things hidden, and to get to the heart of the matter.

  • What am I running from here?

  • What makes me so angry about that?

  • How did I want that meeting to go?

Their use shows respect for and trust in yourself: You don’t need an immediate solution or to pretend to know it all. Delve within in a non-threatening manner and be attentive to the answers that surface when you’re exploring. The truth can emerge more readily and you just may be quite comfortable with it.

  • When will I know it’s time to move on?

  • Where can I take this faltering relationship from here?

  • Who do I want to be in this new leadership role?

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

  • What can I do to feel better?

  • How can I properly enjoy this vacation?

  • What is my vision of the ideal retirement?


Your Coaching To-Do’s

⎕ Silent Stillness or Walking: Start a meditation session or a walk today by asking yourself a powerful open-ended question. See where your mind goes from there. After the initial probe and reveal, try another one. And then another.

⎕ Practice: Every time you feel stumped, bummed, or unsure today, pause and ask yourself a powerful open-ended question. “Powerful” means that it’s direct and in service to your agenda of the moment. After the fact, consider the impact of that one question.

⎕ Bonus Practice: Challenge yourself to ask open-ended questions with colleagues and family, especially when you’re tempted to lead with “Why?” What effect did that have on the conversation? How did it alter the tone, content, vitality? Closed question: Did you notice that those were open-ended questions?

* affiliate link