The Power of Close-Ended Questions
In lots of situations we’re taught that we need to use “open-ended” questions. Meaning questions that can’t result in a “yes” or a “no” answer. Close-ended: “do you like chocolate?” Open-ended: “how do you feel about chocolate?” Open-ended questions are generally more powerful because you learn the answer to the similar close-ended question, but you also get a lot more data along with it. Plus you get the additional benefit of really engaging the person. The open-ended question creates conversation, whereas the close-ended one does not. More on those kinds of questions, in another article.
Sometimes you want a purely binary answer though. Sometimes you don’t want the other person to distract from or cloud the issue by going on and on, or sidetracking: “Brother Stubborn, do you believe that home teaching is an institution inspired by God?” “Will you marry me?” Or from the temple recommend interview questions: “Are you a full-tithe payer?” These are some very good close-ended questions. They keep things efficient, but also cover the most important point.
Think how much less effective it would be if the 2nd question were “do you pay tithing?” A millionaire might pay a dollar a year and truthfully answer “yes, I pay tithing.” The recommend interview questions are designed to be efficient for the worthy member, but also to leave things open for deeper discussion with their Bishop, if the answer is “no.”
Questioning the Basics
Using the temple recommend questions as an example, there’s some situations where you know the path (or list of items) a person needs to take to better their life, you’re just not sure where they are on that path. A great example comes from my experience as a missionary. We’d meet with someone over and over, feel and identify the Spirit with them, have excellent gospel discussion, and really believe they were making great progress. Then we’d get rejected when we challenged them to be baptized. It was confusing and frustrating. Thankfully, others have proposed a very simple solution of asking close-ended questions about doctrines they needed to believe: start with the most basic foundational doctrines and work your way up, until you discover where the problem is.
I remember one of the first times I tried this. We started with the basics: “do you believe in God?”
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ.”
“No. I’ve never understood why we need another God, or why he died or any of that. It makes no sense to me.”
Now we knew where to start. We were talking about the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Chastity, while he didn’t have enough of an understanding of Jesus’ Atonement and role in the Plan of Salvation for any of that to matter. Once he’d developed a testimony of our Savior, that was it: every thing else was easy for him. If there had been more issues though, we could have continued the questions to find the next stumbling block: “do you believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and Christ’s representative on the earth?”, “Do you believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God?”, “Do you believe that Gordon B. Hinkley (at that time) is God’s prophet and representative today?”, etc.
When you know the steps a person needs to take, you can simply ask close-ended questions around them. If you structure the questions so that a “yes” answer means everything is okay, move on, then the “no” answer will usually result in a voluntary explanation from the person you’re working with. If it doesn’t, then it’s time to start the open-ended questions: “why don’t you believe in Jesus Christ?”, “What do you find hard to believe about Jesus?”, “What is your understanding of why Jesus had to die?”
Or backup one step: “how do you feel about God?” Then build on what they do feel and believe, to help them understand the next level. This method of starting with the most fundamental principles and working up works great for many situations other than teaching the gospel. You can apply it to things like helping your children understand why they shouldn’t yell and scream and act like like a hellion in public, or at home, for that matter. It works for helping people understand why their calling is important and warrants their time, talents, and efforts. You can even use it in helping somebody understand financial principles such as the beauty of being debt free, budgeting, or automating finances.
How have you, or will you, use this method? (open-ended question)