Improve communication with open-ended questions

Back in my undergraduate psychology classes, our professors would often stress the importance of asking open-ended questions rather than closed-ended questions whether talking to friends, family members or romantic partners. 

What’s the difference and why does it matter? In short, “How was your day?” is an example of an open-ended question whereas “Did you have a good day?” is an example of a closed-ended question. The former encourages a range of responses (e.g., “Not bad, work was kind of slow today…” or “Amazing – you won’t believe who I ran into!”) whereas the latter asks for a simple yes or no response.

Open-ended questions aren’t fool-proof, as any parent or partner knows when they’ve asked someone that very question, “How was your day?” only to get a simple, one-word reply (e.g., “Fine”) but they’re a good start at encouraging communication to flow. Open-ended questions are invitations to learn more, and they suggest that you, the question asker, are interested in what the person you’re talking to has to say rather than getting a curt reply.

Try monitoring yourself to understand more about the types of questions you ask those around you, and to see what opportunities you might have for asking more open-ended questions (without, of course, turning your conversations into inquisitions!). Open-ended questions and inviting phrases such as “Tell me more” or “I’d love to hear what you thought about that” can help to spark conversation where there is otherwise silence. Read more about the advantages of different question types in relationships and marriages by reading The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by Dr. John Gottman.

[Photo by DruhScoff, via Flickr/Creative Commons.]

About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at