Open, honest questions

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Click here for a fabulous one-page guide to asking honest, open questions from this compassionate listening training packet.

A good description of an open, honest question is that the person asking the question could not possibly anticipate the answer to it. These questions are usually brief and have no preamble or explanation. Ask questions for the purpose of helping the focus person rather than for satisfying your own curiosity.


  • What did you mean when you said X?
  • What next steps might you take?
  • What would you say to someone in your shoes?
  • How would you summarize this?
  • Why's that?
  • What is an example of Y?
  • Could you say more about Z?
  • What could it look like if you were to turn it on its head?
  • If you were to generalize this, what might you say?
  • How would you explain it to someone who _________ ? (was in 5th grade, was likely to agree/disagree with you, was able to be super helpful, etc.)

From: The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal by Parker J. Palmer & Arthur Zajonc, with Megan Scribner

  • What experience shaped the idea you just told us about?
  • You said that your students are resistant to this approach. What are the marks of that resistance, and what do you think causes it?
  • You mentioned you find the work of such-and-such a writer helpful. What is that work, and why is it meaningful to you?

These questions come from genuine curiosity and authentic inquiry ... They do not put the speaker on the defensive. They do not attempt to compel the speaker to go in a particular direction. They allow the speaker to define his or her truth for himself or herself.

Questions to avoid

Avoid questions that impose what you think on the speaker. This includes questions that include suggestions, advice, or analysis. We're asking you to avoid doing any evaluating, be it positive or negative, reassuring, diagnosing, judging, labeling, moralizing or providing any logical arguments. It can be surprisingly difficult to keep these out of your questions. A sure sign that a question was not honest and open is if the speaker answers it by saying "Yeah, but…"


  • You mentioned A, which made me think of B, and so I'd like to ask you about C.
  • Have you tried Y?
  • Why don't you Z?
  • Have you read such-and-such book?
  • Have you thought about talking to so-and-so about this?