Illustration of patient talking to professional

It's not the questions we fear - it's the answers

By Clint McLean

Open-ended questions help you gain insight into your clients’ lives and motivations so you can find the solution that is right for them. They also ensure clinicians aren’t the only ones determining what is discussed and when discussions are over. It’s why they are so useful for delivering care based the specific needs of each unique client.

What are open-ended questions?
Questions that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no” and require elaboration are considered open-ended. Starting questions with “Why” or “How” often lead to fuller responses and can lead to unexpected information that is crucial for a hearing care professional.

Benefits of open-ended questions:

  • Clients are given time and space to explain their story, situation, implications, changes, and to feel safe around the HCP 
  • Hearing care professionals learn what is important to their patients (motivation, beliefs, reservations, prejudices etc.) 
  • Talk time is more evenly distributed. 
  • Patient autonomy is supported
  • Partnership between HCP and their client is strengthened

Despite the benefits, many clinicians who are completely on board with open-ended questions still don’t use them. Others are great at asking the questions, but then not so sure what to do with the responses. There are two main reasons for this: Fear of the answers and fear of the time the answers may require.

Fear of the answers
By asking questions that let our clients add context, discuss feelings, and take us down paths we didn’t anticipate, we put ourselves in situations where we need to quickly analyze, react, and reply to things that may have taken us by surprise. That can be uncomfortable if you aren’t accustomed to it.

Here are some tips to help you keep your composure and use the new or unexpected information to deliver care designed for that client’s specific needs and preferences.

  1. First, embrace it. You are on a journey to understand your client so consider their replies as nourishment for this understanding.
  2. While you probably don’t want to imagine your appointments turning into improv classes, a key principle of improv is to accept what your partner initiates and build upon it. So instead of ignoring or correcting your client’s statement, elevate it. Let them know you heard them and that their thought or feeling is valid. Then, ask for more.
  3. Use active listening and your body language to encourage them to elaborate. Stay engaged and show them that what they are saying resonates with you. Nod, smile, or frown as the story requires – expressions help to create a connection and send a signal that you want to hear more.
  4. You don’t have to fix everything in their life that they may mention. Did they recently get divorced? Lose a loved one? Sometimes they may just need someone to listen and empathize with a situation they find incredibly challenging or sad. Simply saying, “Thanks for telling me about that. It must be a very stressful time for you,” can go a long way.

Fear of running out of time
In a perfect world, perhaps there would be no time constraints on appointments. But that’s not a world we live and work in. So, what if your open-ended questions lead to so many reflective thoughts and conversations that you don’t have time to address all the needs your client wants to discuss?

While sometimes pre-appointment questions and information can shave valuable minutes from an appointment, other times we just simply run out of time. When this happens, if we can’t extend the appointment, we really only have two options: Prioritize or schedule another appointment. We can find guidance from the Four Habits framework on this.

  1. The first stage of the Four Habits is Invest in the Beginning. It suggests working with your client at the beginning of the appointment to set the agenda for it. Not only will this provide a structure to the appointment, but it will also provide agreed expectations for what the appointment should look like.
  2. If you can’t fit everything into the appointment, acknowledge that, and ask your client to help you prioritize what is covered today and set a new appointment if necessary to investigate any remaining issues.

Equipped with these tips and a little practice, open-ended questions can become your superpower in understanding your clients’ needs so you can give them the care they deserve. And you see – there’s nothing to be afraid of.

You can learn more about open-ended questions in our free course in the Ida Learning Hall.