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Skilled Facilitators Engage With Great Questions

a man engaging with his clients, asking great questions, over a zoom call.
October 15, 2023 8:01 pm

The Power of Participation & Engagement: The Five Core Facilitator Best Practices Series

(Stay NeutralListen Actively | Ask QuestionsParaphrase | Summarize)

How can Skilled Facilitators Use Great Questions to Drive Engaging Conversations?

An engaging facilitator knows which questions to ask to drive high quality, inclusive dialogue. Probing questions are at the heart of critical thinking – they challenge others to look at a situation from multiple perspectives. The primary goal of probing questions is to explore the contours of difficult issues and to assess and judge the assumptions underlying our own ideas and actions. In this third installment of the Five Core Facilitator Best Practices, we take a look at some guiding principles to facilitative questioning.

10 Tips for Asking the Right Questions

A critical core practice of a facilitator is the ability to ask questions. We focus on questioning to leverage a group’s intelligence during collaborative discussions such as: brainstorming, problem-solving, decision-making, strategizing, etc. What questions to ask the group is not always easy to determine because not all questions are equal in any given context. So how do you ensure you’re asking the right questions?

Here are some guiding principles to help you determine the right question at the right time:

  1. Adapt to the group’s energy: Recognizing the group’s energy and adapting your questions to match can be very effective. If the group is feeling sluggish, perhaps use more energizing and inspiring questions. If the group is very engaged, delve deeper into complex questions.
  2. Consider the desired results: Ask yourself “what results am I helping the group work towards?” This speaks to the ‘outcome(s)’ that the group must achieve in any given topic or facilitated conversation. For example, the group is attempting to ‘develop a list of high priority initiatives for achieving a certain strategy’
  3. Brainstorm a set of questions: Next, brainstorm a set of questions that you believe might help lead the group to achieving its desired outcome e.g. “What would our organization/team look like if this strategy was achieved – what’s changed?” “What do we now have in place to achieve this future state?” “What don’t we have in place that’s needed?” “What initiatives do we need to put in place to achieve our future state that maximizes what we have and fills in what we don’t have?”
  4. Factor in group dynamics: Understanding the personalities and dynamics within the group can influence the type of questions you pose. Being aware of potential conflicts and alliances can help you navigate potential pitfalls and guide the conversation effectively.
  5. Organize logically: Determine if all of the questions are in the right logical order
  6. Employ probing questions: During the facilitation, be prepared to ask ‘probing’ questions that help the group go broader or deeper in their thinking e.g. “What would the strategy look like if achieved from our customer’s perspective? Our employee’s perspective? Our supplier’s perspective?”
  7. Clarify ambiguous responses: When participants give their response to a question, note what’s ambiguous or unclear in their statement to help you form the next follow-up question. For example, if a participant says “I think we need to better leverage our resources in HR” use ‘clarifying’ questions such as:
    1. “What do you mean by leverage?”
    2. “Why HR?
    3. “Which resources were you thinking of?”
  8. Involve participants: To build greater engagement, ask the participants at the beginning of a conversation “What questions do you think we need to answer during this discussion?” Record their responses or have them post their ideas in CHAT for review. This way the accountability for ensuring the right questions are being asked also become the responsibility of the participants
  9. Share ideas when necessary: If the participants are stuck or missing important information that you are aware of, but your set of questions are not uncovering this information, then be prepared to share your idea as a suggestion for them to consider. Say something like “I was thinking that XYZ may be important to consider here, what do you think?”
  10. Start with open-ended questions: Finally, it’s always best to start with open-ended questions (e.g. “Who? What? When? Where? How? Tell me more?”) when getting a group to share and expand on ideas. We use close-ended questions for summing up ideas, confirming decisions and for creating closure (e.g. “So my understanding is that our key initiatives will be ABC, is that correct?”)

The Power of Questions in Structuring and Guiding Conversations

As facilitators, we recognize that questions are the cornerstone of effective communication. Asking questions are critical for structuring a conversation and helping to empower a team to achieve their desired outcomes. We follow-up with questions to help the group go broader or deeper, clear up ambiguity and/or to create closure. In essence, the art of questioning becomes the bridge that connects raw ideas to actionable insights. We take off the facilitator hat to share an idea only when a group is stuck or requires important information that we have, however we always end with a question e.g. “What do you think?” or “Does this make sense?” This continuous loop of inquiry fosters an environment where individuals feel heard and valued, thus enhancing the overall engagement and productivity of the session.


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