Asking questions is how we learn about each other and discover new things. That being said, not all questions are created equal. Asking the right open-ended questions in peer support can unlock the door to understanding.
Not only for you but for the individual you are supporting.
Here’s the thing, you’re not just a peer support specialist; you’re a conversational wizard! Ok, well maybe not a wizard but you are definitely a guide. The right questions can take us to places we have never been and make us think about our circumstances in a completely different light.
In this guide, we will cover the ins and outs of open-ended questions. Moreover, we will cover 8 tips that will instantly boost your questioning skills.
Finally, we will discuss three common mistakes to be aware of when asking open ended questions.
Table of Contents
The Power and Purpose of Open-Ended Questions
In peer support, open-ended questions are more than just a technique. They are a pathway to understanding, empathy, and growth.
In other words, they show our interest and commitment to getting to know the individual we are supporting.
Why Open-Ended Questions?
One of the biggest reasons for open-ended questions is that they invite sharing and exploration. Unlike closed questions that might get a simple “yes” or “no,” open-ended questions spark dialogue.
Basically, they encourage people to open up and share what’s on their mind.
Lets look at some of the reasons why open ended questions are so valuable.
Facilitating Deeper Connection and Understanding
Open-ended questions allow your peers to express themselves freely, sharing their unique perspectives and emotions. According to Rogers’ Client-Centered Therapy (1951), this empathetic approach builds a deeper connection.
In a sense, this is like you walking beside them on their journey, not ahead or behind.
Encouraging Reflection and Insight
Questions that invite detailed responses can lead to profound self-reflection. As highlighted in a study by the Journal of Clinical Psychology, open-ended questions can encourage critical thinking and self-awareness.
Both of which are essential components of the recovery process.
Are we therapists? No, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use this knowledge to our advantage.
Supporting Empowerment and Autonomy
By asking open-ended questions, you are handing over the microphone, so to speak. This practice aligns with the principles of Empowerment Theory.
In other words, it promotes personal choice and self-efficacy.
Again, both of which are key factors in personal growth and recovery.
Embracing Open-Ended Questions
Mastering open-ended questions is one of the skills needed for effective in your role as a peer specialist. That being said, it can take some practice. You may be thinking, “What’s so hard about asking questions?”.
Well, asking questions is simple. Rather, it’s how you ask them that requires some skill. Don’t worry if that seems that little ambiguous. Let’s jump into these tips for asking open-ended questions and learn more about them.
#1: Start with "How," "What," or "Why"
You probably noticed “when” “where” and “who” are missing from the list. Asking these questions can be useful and it definitely has its place. That being said, they typically doesn’t offer as much room in the response. Most of the time they can be answered with a simple date, location, or name.
(Again, it’s all in how you ask.)
Beginning with how, what, and why, open the door for the individual to share more about their experience.
Then, once the person starts to feel comfortable and open up, it’s easier to ask other questions without killing the flow of conversation.
Usually, in my experience at least, things related to when, where, and who will come out during the conversation anyway.
Closed Question: “Did you feel supported by your friends?”
Open-Ended Question: “How have your friends supported you during this time?”
Use this tip when you want to dig deeper into feelings and experiences. It allows your peers to open up about their emotions and thoughts.
Trust me, a well timed “How” or “Why” can be more powerful than you think!
#2: Avoid Questions That Can Be Answered with "Yes" or "No"
Again, yes or no questions have their place, but they can quickly turn a conversation one-sided if you are not careful.
On that note, once a conversation does become one sided, it can be difficult to bring it back to a place of balance.
Closed Question: “Are you feeling better?”
Open-Ended Question: “What has changed in how you feel?”
When talking about progress or change, this approach invites them to express their journey in their own words. More than that, it allows them to hear themselves say it out loud.
Have you ever had the experience of not fully realizing something until you heard yourself say it? I have, and it always amazes me how much it can change how I am feeling.
3: Be Patient and Listen
When asking questions, it pays to be patient. This gives the individual more time to think about their response. Not only that, but it shows we are interested and not trying to rush the conversation.
Moreover, pushing someone for answers can make them uncomfortable and cause them to shut down. In fact, this in one of the common mistakes in peer support.
Closed Question: “Do you have any hobbies?”
Open-Ended Question: “What activities or hobbies do you enjoy, and why?”
Sometimes people will open up right way. Others, it may take awhile before they feel truly comfortable sharing. In all reality, this may be one of the first times that someone has ever taken the time to listen.
Just being patient and understanding may be doing more good than you know.
#4: Reflect and Paraphrase to Show Understanding
Reflecting is a great way to dig deeper into a response and get more information. At the same time, it show that we are listening and engaged with the person.
More importantly, it can be used to validate a person’s experience. This all works to make the individual feel heard and understood. Which, if you weren’t already aware, is a basic human need and a huge first step in the healing process.
After a peer shares, reflect by saying: “It sounds like that was a really big moment in your life. Can you tell me more about that?”
Using reflections does a few different things. Aside from what I have already mentioned, it confirms our understanding of what is being said. Adding the open-ended question invites the individual to share more about that experience.
However, if someone isn’t ready to take the next step, let them know that’s ok. Even more, let them know you’re willing to listen when ever they do feel comfortable.
#5: Encourage conversation with Follow-Up Questions
Building on the last tip, we can ask follow-up questions even without the reflection statement. Follow up questions are pretty straightforward. Basically, they serve as a way to learn more about a specific situation.
What’s more, they encourage the individual to reflect on their circumstances on a deeper level.
After a response, ask: “Can you tell me more about that experience?” or “What did that feel like for you?”
When you want to understand the layers of a situation, follow-up questions are the way to do it. Plus, they communicate that you are interested in their experience and want to know more.
Remember, this may be the first time someone has taken the time to sit down a listen. Don’t underestimate the power of asking for more information.
#5: Use Silence as a Tool
Awkward silences can be intimidating sometimes. However, they can also be used in a constructive and supportive way.
Allowing for silence gives the person the floor and let’s them know what they have to say is important.
Also, leaving a moment of silence before you respond allows the individual to truly absorb what they just said.
After asking, “What has been the most challenging part of your week?” allow a moment of silence. After they answer the question, pause before responding.
When you pause before responding, it leaves room for them to add something they might have left out. Here’s the thing, a quiet pause can be a motivator for them to continue sharing.
At the end of the day, your patience during these moments speaks volumes about your respect for their process.
Don’t be afraid of silence.
#7: Be Mindful of Body Language
Non-verbal cues play a huge role in communication. Because of this, its important to pay attention not only to the body language of the individual but our own as well. We should try to convey openness and genuine interest with out non-verbal cues.
The slightest cues can convey huge amounts of information if we pay attention. used correctly they can build rapport and trust.
Maintain eye contact and open posture when asking, “How do you see yourself moving forward from here?”
Your body language can set the stage for honest and open communication. It’s an unspoken way of conveying that you’re fully present.
Similarly, by observing the body language of the other person, it can give us clues as to how they are feeling about the conversation.
For instance, when noticing the other person, a shaky foot may be a signal that they are uncomfortable. This might suggest that we need to step back. Alternatively, a shaky foot on our end might express boredom or impatience. Which in turn, might cause the individual to become withdrawn.
#8: Avoid Leading or Loaded Questions
Certain questions have the power to influence a person’s response. This is especially true if the individual is already feeling uncomfortable or unsure of themselves.
Because of this, we should be mindful of any questions that might suggest we are looking for a particular answer.
Instead of: “You felt depressed about that, didn’t you?”
Ask: “How did you feel about that situation?”
When asking questions, the goal is to understand feelings and experiences. That being said, make sure that your questions don’t imply judgment or steer responses.
The power of suggestion is a real thing.
Common Mistakes and How to Navigate Them
Asking open-ended questions in peer support may seem like a fairly straightforward process.
However, there are some common mistakes that can disrupt the process. In fact, they can actually cause the individual to shut down and be less likely to share.
Let’s look at these mistakes and how to avoid them.
Mistake 1: Interrupting or Finishing Sentences
While it may seem obvious not to interrupt someone when they are speaking, it happens more often than you think. Mostly, because it can be easy to get caught up in the moment. You may connect with something the individual said or feel like you have something important to add.
In any case, interrupting can lead to a breakdown in communication. Or worse, resentment and misunderstanding.
Practice patience and active listening. Additionally, remind yourself that each person’s story is their own. If you catch yourself thinking about what you are going to say while the other person is speaking, bring your attention back to the moment.
Mistake 2: Asking Multiple Questions at Once
It can be easy to get excited and what to know more about what happened. This mistake might look something like this.
“How do you feel about your family’s reaction, and what did your friends say? How are you handling everything right now?”
It’s not uncommon for someone to feel nervous or shy about seeking help in the first place. Because of this, a barrage of questions can be overwhelming. Not only that, but asking multiple questions can dilute the response to each one.
In other words, instead of giving a full response to one question, they might skip over important parts to answer all of them at once.
Focus on one question at a time. This keeps the conversation clear and respectful. Moreover, it shows that you’re interested in each part of their experience and provides opportunities for deeper insight.
Mistake 3: Making Assumptions or Judgments
Imagine listening to someone speaking about an abusive relationship that just ended. You may feel a sense of relief for this person and ask, “You must be relieved that it’s over, right?” instead of “How do you feel now that it’s over?”
This mistake is similar to asking leading questions. Only here, we make an assumption or judgment based on what we would have been feeling.
By putting our assumptions out there, we may accidentally make the person respond differently than they would have.
In this example, we might even make the person feel guilty for being sad that the relationship ended. Just because the relationship was unhealthy, it doesn’t mean there may not be some grief over the loss.
Be mindful of your wording. Remember, open-ended questions don’t imply a particular feeling or response. This is important because it allows individuals to share their authentic emotions.
If you have found yourself making these mistakes, don’t worry. We have all been there at one point or another.
In truth, they are opportunities for growth.
Embracing Growth With Open Ended Questions
Asking open ended questions is a peer support skill that takes practice. By putting these tips to use you will be ahead of the game and making meaningful connections in no time. If you have someone to practice with, even better.
It may seem silly, but role playing can be a valuable tool in your peer support journey. Not only can you learn to be intentional with your words, but it also provides a way to get feedback on how you ask your questions.
When asking questions and getting to know the individuals you support, just remember to be yourself.
We believe in you and your continuous progress. More than that, your dedication to growth inspires us and we’re here to support you every step of the way.
Let's Continue To Grow Together
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– MHAPSS Team
Elijah Meason is a Certified Peer Support Worker in the State of New Mexico. He is a SMART Recovery facilitator and is working toward getting his Masters degree in social work. He is currently working at a dual diagnosis treatment center helping individuals overcome mental health and addiction challenges.