William Chadwick

Open Questions – Role Play

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An extract from Rudyard Kipling’s poem in “The Elephant’s Child” literally OPENS up opportunities to practice a key skill as part of a communication skills course as well as allied skills in active listening and observation.



Practice communication, active listening and observation skills


The extract from the poem

"I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who."

How to use the extract in a training activity:

The activity focuses on the use of Kipling’s six OPEN questions rather than closed, hypothetical and supplementary enquiries. thus:

  1. What
  2. Why
  3. When
  4. How
  5. Where
  6. Who

The training exercise works best with no more than 12 participants. It has transferable utility to a wide range of other training courses such as advocacy, assertiveness, influencing and anything linked to interview preparation.


  • Assemble your cohort in a horseshoe -tabled or untabled
  • Say you are going to practice the use of open questions which will test their listening and observational skills as well as the use of Kipling’s six open questions. Make sure you showcase the Kipling six on a flipchart or power point. Keep them on visible display throughout the activity
  • Ask for a volunteer
  • The volunteer has to leave the room and in their absence the group must decide something they want to know about the volunteer, e.g. favourite sport or last UK holiday. Something specific and within the bounds of privacy and decency!
  • When the group are decided on their secret question, invite the volunteer back in to sit at the front. He or she must make then a statement - anything. So let's suppose the group want to know her/his favourite football club. Let’s say its Manchester United. The volunteer does not know this is the topic. He/She makes a statement, e.g. "On my way here today I saw a squirrel".
  • The volunteer then turns to the first person in the horseshoe. That person can ask any OPEN question but it has to be based on the last thing that comes out of the volunteer’s mouth and any subsequent question must include any or all of the last words to come out of the mouth of the volunteer.
  • So let’s imagine the run:
    • First trainee: - What colour was the squirrel?
    • Volunteer: Grey
    • Second trainee: What other colours are there beside grey?
    • Volunteer: Red
    • Third Trainee: What other things are RED?
    • Volunteer: Apples/Blood/Robins/Traffic Lights
    • Fourth Trainee: (DISASTER COMING) Do you like Robins?
    • Volunteer: YES! - (Disaster - a closed question has been put. Somebody was not listening but help is at hand with Number 5)
    • Fifth Trainee: When you say YES, what do you mean? (forcing Volunteer to open up)
    • Volunteer: I like red things, especially my favourite football club colour
    • Number 6: What is your favourite football club?
    • Volunteer:  Manchester United.

It won't be as easy as this - it might go around the table twice.You might have to blow the whistle and declare the volunteer the winner. It can get competitive. Tons of industrial language. But you will soon see who is quick on the feet/deft/creative/active listener/observer etc.

Some simple rules:

  • The volunteer must always tell the truth but if they detect or suspect the content of the secret question they have a mandate to be as difficult as they like with evasive or short answers. This will further test the interviewer’s skills.
  • People are not allowed to go out of sequence or confer. You will see people at one end of the table dying to jump in


Source: William Chadwick - LinkedIn Group of QED Associate Freelancers.

Comments (1) (4.0 avg / 1 ratings)

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  • One of the biggest problems in communication is that we sometimes focus more on what we are about to say rather than what was said. This activity helps with that by encouraging to listen more actively and at the same time ask the right questions. "Two birds with one stone" you could say.

    about 4 years ago