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The Coaching Catalyst: The Strategic Use of Open-Ended Questions

Updated: Mar 12


Coaches often use an incredibly powerful technique to open up the conversation: they ask a straightforward but profoundly insightful question — "What's on your mind?"

This open-ended query sparks a dynamic and enriching conversation, as it encourages individuals to venture deep into their thoughts, bringing forth what they consider most important.

Two women sitting on a coach engaged in conversation

As a Business Analyst (BA), you too can harness the magic of open-ended questions. Just as coaches use these questions to glean valuable insights about their coachees, we as BA's can use this strategy to guide planning, facilitate meetings, and manage the 'Bind' cycle, as we previously discussed in the first post of this series.

Why Open-Ended Questions?

Open-ended questions are incredibly powerful communication tools and hold numerous benefits, including:

  • Encouraging Detailed Responses: These questions offer respondents the freedom to answer in their own words, leading to more in-depth, valuable insights. This is contrary to closed-ended questions which limit responses to specific options.

  • Providing Insight into Respondent's Thoughts and Feelings: Since open-ended questions allow more room for detailed responses, they can reveal the respondent's personal perspective, feelings, thoughts, and understanding of a particular subject.

  • Enhancing Creative Thinking: When faced with an open-ended question, respondents may think more creatively as they must generate their own answer rather than choosing from ready-made options.

  • Encouraging Dialogue and Engagement: Open-ended questions stimulate conversation and can encourage further engagement, making them an excellent tool for promoting discussion and interaction in any context.

  • Facilitating Unbiased Answers: As they do not suggest any possible answers, open-ended questions reduce bias, allowing the respondent to answer freely and genuinely.

Let's have a look at how Business Analysts can use open ended questions to get the conversation going and get better end results.

Meeting room with attendees engaging with the facilitator

Open-Ended Questions when in the 'Bind':

Often in our professional roles, we confront 'the bind'—a situation where our readiness to provide swift solutions triggers a cycle of overdependence, causing us to invest substantial time in assisting others. While it's rewarding to be a sought-after resource, breaking this cycle leads to more autonomous, self-sufficient colleagues.

One effective strategy to encourage autonomy is through the use of properly constructed open-ended questions, empowering individuals to discover their own solutions and increase their sense of competency and mastery.

Here are some examples:

"If you were to tackle this problem on your own, how would you start?"

By asking this, you encourage the person to consider forging their own path to a solution. It's an excellent step towards fostering autonomy.

"What steps have you already taken regarding this issue?"

This question encourages the person to think about or identify any efforts that they've already made towards tackling their problem, potentially realizing they have made more progress than they initially thought.

"What resources do you think might help you with this?"

This question encourages the person to do their own research and identify resources they might have overlooked.

"What skills or tools do you think may be needed to handle this?"

This question can help the person identify what they need to learn or improve to overcome their issue, further fostering self-sufficiency.

"What part of this situation do you feel most confident in handling on your own?"

This question can help the person realize areas where they already have some degree of mastery, again boosting their confidence and increasing their motivation towards self-sufficiency.

Remember - the goal of these questions isn't to abandon the person to deal with their problem on their own, but rather guide them to unearth their abilities and realize they're more capable and resilient than they might initially think.

Two women in conversation whilst the one is taking notes

Open-Ended Questions when in the 'Grind':

Although open-ended questions are helpful in many stages of a project, I find it most helpful during the planning and initial discovery phase of requirements when your primary objective is to gather as much information as possible about the project and the stakeholders' expectations.

Traditional, closed-ended questions may lead to discrete, specific pieces of information, but they often miss the larger context and deeper insights. As a BA, it is important to strike a balance between targeted, focused questions and open-ended questions to ensure you get the full picture but that you also get around to the answers and getting the work done.

Using Open-Ended Questions for Meeting Preparation and Analysis

As business analysts we often have specific objectives we need to be met during a session. Asking yourself open-ended questions as a form of self-reflection and preparation during your planning can help you to clarify your own thoughts and needs, ensuring that you are focused and organized.

Consider these questions:

"What is the ultimate goal of this meeting or analysis?"

Reflect on the main objective to ensure your planning aligns with the desired outcomes and helps maintain focus during the process.

"What are the priority topics to discuss?"

Assess which areas need the most attention to allocate an appropriate amount of time and avoid overlooking critical issues.

"What do I need to understand from each stakeholder's perspective?"

Consider the unique viewpoints and concerns of all involved parties to ensure a comprehensive understanding and foster better collaboration.

"What challenges or potential roadblocks should I anticipate?"

Identify any foreseeable issues that may arise during the meeting or analysis, and prepare strategies to address them effectively.

"How can I adapt the discussion topics to engage each participant effectively?"

Tailor your approach to resonate with different stakeholders, taking into account their specific roles, goals, and communication styles.

"Is there any additional research or background information that I should gather prior to the meeting?"

Determine if further information would help you better understand the context and contribute to more productive discussions.

Using Open-Ended Questions During Your Meeting

There is also value to asking an open-ended question at the beginning of a meeting or during a meeting, even if you have particular goals to achieve during the session as it encourages participation and engagement from participants, drives contextual understanding and sets the scene for the meeting.

At the beginning of the meeting:

Ideally, you wouldn't want to start a meeting as a BA with a 'What's on your mind?' to all the participants. This will not only will you look completely unprepared but it will almost ensure that you never get to the planned objectives and outcomes for the meeting.

Here are a few open ended questions that you can work in after stating the purpose and agenda of the meeting to still benefit from the value of open-ended questions without derailing your meeting:

"Can anyone briefly share their progress on the designated tasks relating to our objectives?"

This serves as a progress check and keeps everyone updated on the status of tasks, helping to identify any issues or bottlenecks early on

"What are the key concerns or challenges that relate to our discussion today?"

This question invites team members to share their concerns upfront, ensuring that these issues are addressed during the meeting.

"What additional issues should we discuss today that might impact our goals?"

This encourages team members to look at the bigger picture and identify other potential issues or opportunities related to the overall project goal.

During the meeting:

As you explore the requirements during the course of the meeting, you can also ask variations of the following questions to keep the conversation going and possibly bring new insights to light:

"Could you elaborate more on your viewpoint regarding this aspect of the project?"

This question fosters deeper discussions, helping to uncover insights and perspectives that may not have been considered.

"How well do you think the proposed solution aligns with our project requirements?"

This ensures that the team agrees on the viability of proposed solutions, fostering buy-in and shared ownership of outcomes.

"What potential roadblocks could we encounter with this strategy and how could we overcome them?"

This prompts the team to anticipate challenges and jointly develop contingency plans, promoting proactive problem-solving behavior.

"Could we walk through a scenario that illustrates this issue or potential solution?"

Walking through a scenario encourages a shared understanding of the issue/solution and might help spot potential points of friction or areas of improvement.

"Are there alternate strategies or solutions that we haven't yet explored which could also meet our objectives?"

This question encourages innovative thinking, ensuring that the team explores all viable solutions before making significant decisions.

Meeting room with all attendees looking at what the facilitator is explaining on a white board


In conclusion, the value of open-ended questions in guiding and extracting effective outcomes from meetings cannot be emphasized enough. Not only do they stimulate discussion and encourage comprehensive responses, but they also provide the BA or a meeting facilitator the opportunity to gain deeper insights into the team's work dynamics, thoughts, and feelings.

Using open-ended questions strategically can allow for effective planning, productive discussions, better decision-making, and enhanced team alignment. Remember, the end goal of employing these questions is always to accomplish the shared objectives and ensure each team member feels heard and part of the process.

In the next installment of our coaching series, we will delve into another powerful tool in the coach's arsenal - probing questions, with a special focus on the AWE questions (And What Else?). These types of questions enable a coach or facilitator to gain a more profound understanding of a situation and ensure they capture the complete story.


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