Good Communication Skills: Open-Ended Questions

By Barbara Jordan

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Good communication skills will help you handle difficult conversations with employees. So, how do you go about preventing conflict and positively motivating people?

As a Servant Leader and Leadership Trainer/Executive Coach, I’ve learned how to effectively handle the most sensitive conversations. My first lesson, to avoid “going up the creek without a paddle”, is to “use your O.A.R.S”.

Using your OARS with your employees helps you navigate through rapids of resistance and steer you into calmer waters of change.

It can be especially helpful early on in the working relationship when first building trust and rapport. But, it can also be useful later on, throughout the relationship.

OARS Acronym

  • Open-ended questions
  • Affirmations
  • Reflective listening
  • Summaries

Good Communication Skills

Asking open versus closed-ended questions help the employee get started talking.

An open question is one that doesn’t invite one-word responses but rather encourages the person to take control of the direction of the conversation, which can help her feel safer and able to express herself.

These elaboration questions invite a more open conversation compared to asking only yes/no response questions.

When you begin with several closed-ended questions, it is likely to cause the person to answer in short phrases and fall into a passive role waiting for you to ask for information.

Instead, with open-ended questions, you set an interested, open, collaborative tone. The employee is then likely to open up.

Examples of Open-ended Questions

  • What would you like to talk about?
  • What would change if you quit/stopped _____?
  • Tell me, what’s bothering you?
  • So, what’s going on?
  • What’s been happening since we last met?
  • What makes you think it may be time for a change?
  • What happens when you say/do that?
  • How were you able to do that?
  • What’s different this time?
  • What else?
  • Such as?
  • What was that like?
  • What would you like?
  • Tell me about a time when you were successful

Inappropriate Closed-Ended Examples

  • Do you think others have been hurt by your ____ (negative, unproductive behavior)? • Do people get angry when you do that?
  • Are you concerned about ____?
  • Do you ____ (negative, undesired behavior)?
  • Does this affect others?
  • Others say you ____ (negative, undesired behavior). Do you ____?

Often open-ended questions begin with “What,” “How,” “In what way,” and “Tell me …” or “Describe….”

Use these to open conversation about the person’s view of his/her problems and commitment to change.

Make your open-ended questions relevant to the conversation to encourage the person to explore and recognize problem areas and motivation for change.

Avoid being judgmental or leading. Pause after each question to give the person time to respond. And avoid asking several questions at a time, or the person will feel like he/she is being interrogated.

Don’t lead or steer the person or use a judgmental or sarcastic tone.

Teaching Good Communication Skills


Affirmations are genuine, direct statements of support during a discussion that are usually directed at something specific, some change that the employee has made.

These statements demonstrate that you understand and appreciate at least part of what the person is dealing with and support them as a person.

Affirmations verbally reinforce the employee’s strengths, abilities, or efforts to change their behavior.

You help develop the person’s confidence by praising small steps taken in the direction of change or expressing appreciation of his personal qualities that might facilitate successful efforts to change.

This skill focuses on your expressions of confidence in the employee’s ability to achieve their goals.

You may affirm them by:

Using compliments or praise…

Acknowledging the individual’s personal traits, competencies, or abilities that might promote change…

Positively reinforcing the employee (e.g., note how multiple attempts at trying to deal with their problems and not giving up show persistence/strength)…

Fostering the employee’s belief that there is hope for success and he/she can change…


  • I appreciate your honesty ( if you know she is being honest)
  • I can see that ______ is important to you
  • It really shows the commitment that you _____.
  • You have some really good ideas.
  • It sounds as if you have really thought a lot about this and have some good ideas about how you might want to change. You are really on your way!
  • That must have been really hard for you. You are really trying hard to work on yourself.
  • You showed a lot of strength/determination/courage by doing that
  • It seems like you’re really trying to…
  • You held up under enormous pressure.
  • Looking at all the obstacles you’ve overcome, it’s impressive that you’ve been able to…
  • It must’ve taken a lot of work to…
  • Thank you for coming today

The point of affirmations is to notice and acknowledge the person’s efforts and strengths. Verbally reinforce the person’s abilities, skills, or efforts to change his/her behavior.


Listening is about being quiet and actively listening to the person and then responding with a statement that reflects the essence of what the person said or what you think they meant.

Listening is about being quiet and actively listening to the person, and then responding with a statement that reflects the essence of what the person said, or what you think they meant.

It involves close listening that allows you to understand what the person is trying to say. The employee feels empathy when you listen actively/reflectively.

The first step in using reflective listening is to listen carefully and think in terms of possible meanings/hypotheses. In other words, you form a guess about what the person means.

The second step is to prove/disprove your guess by reflecting back on what you think you heard.

It’s like asking, “Do you mean…?” without putting your words in question form.

Levels of reflections:


  1. Simple Reflection
    • “She is driving me crazy with all this work.”
    • You respond: “All the work is really bothering you.”
  2. Amplified Reflection
    • “I don’t know why everybody is making such a big deal about my yelling. I don’t do it that much. And, besides… no one listens unless I do it.”
    • You respond: “So there’s no reason for any concern.” Or, “Well, maybe I did take it a little too far.” (So the person starts thinking in the opposite direction)
  3. Double-sided Reflection
    • (capturing both sides of a person’s ambivalence; reflecting both the pros and cons of something, what was said but also what was implied or hinted; demonstrating that you heard the person’s ambivalence)
    • “I’d hate to fail because I don’t understand the material. It’s just that I don’t want to ask for help from others. I feel really dumb asking.”
    • You respond: “On one hand, you’re worried about failing and frustrated trying to learn the material. On the other hand, you don’t like to ask for help because you think it means you’re not smart.”


  • Communicate that you have followed what the person said and that you have an understanding of the big picture.
  • Help structure a discussion so that neither you nor the speaker gets too far away from important issues and can help you link what a person just said to something he/she stated earlier.
  • Provide an opportunity to emphasize certain elements of what the person has said. After several minutes of using OARS, a summary could check to see if you are “getting” what the person is trying to relay.
    • For example: “So Sally, let me ensure I’ve got this right. You care about your friends very much, and you don’t want to risk losing any of them. You think you might have to talk to them about the rumors they’re spreading but aren’t sure how to do that. Is that it?” Another possible ending may be: “What else would you add?” The person will correct you if you are wrong, and then you could reflect back to affirm you are listening and you got it.
  • Build rapport, communicate your interest in the employee, and shift focus and attention.
  • Invite the employee to correct anything you missed or heard wrong, invite more exploration of material, or transition to another topic.


Let me see if I understand what you’ve told me so far…

Here is what I’ve heard you say so far…


Good communication skills are critical to your success as a leader. In fact, when you use your O.A.R.S., your employees are more likely to feel heard and understood. As a result, they become engaged and motivated.

But don’t be fooled by the deceptive simplicity of these skills. They are much more difficult to employ than they appear.

At my “Master of Motivation & Influence” workshops, attendees are always surprised at how difficult the role-play practice exercises are.

Nevertheless, once they’ve practiced them, received feedback, and made improvements based on that feedback, they find open-ended questions, affirmations, reflections, and summarizations easier and easier.

How Do You Practice Good Communication Skills?

If you have ideas you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Barbara Jordan
Barbara Jordan
Barbara is an author, speaker, and leadership coach. Sign up to receive the ezine “Success Tips for Busy Leaders” or sign up to receive a free sample chapter of Achieve Success In Spite of Stress. Connect with her via Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
  • I hate hearing managers say, “What can I do for you?” after a review. First off, going into the review I do not know what I’ve excelled at or need help with. So, when you ask “What can I do for you” it puts the associate on the spot and seems a bit lazy on the managers part. I feel if this is being asked the work is being done by the associate not the manager. It furthermore feels like they have not spent enough (if any) time thinking about “HOW” to help me improve or excell. I guess I think it should be, “how can I help you?”. I feel the word WHAT is harsh and somewhat closes an opportunity to be more open and honest. Most people hear the first few words in a sentence right? So if you take the above, the first seems a little sarcastic, and the second welcoming. Is there any research on this? Am I off base here, or have I over analyzed this? I am just trying to help people break barriers and become more “open door” friendly.

    • Hi Melissa, I agree with you. Now when I look back , I was always asked ” What can I do for you ” and it was kind of hard to answer. Open ended questions definitely makes it easier for responder to respond . Thank you for posting ! Have a great day !

  • Great..! Very good article on the latest trending topics, thank you for keeping us updated. Thank you for sharing this article with us.

  • I agree that managers and leaders may need to role play to feel more comfortable using OARS!
    Great info!

  • Linda Meldman says:

    I have been practicing OARS for many years. The challenge is how to teach it to the students.

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