Questions are a facilitator’s best friend. Among other things, questions allow us to guide the conversation without sacrificing neutrality and to address group dynamics unobtrusively. But all questions aren’t created equally, so here are 5 types of questions you’ll want to work into your facilitation practice.
At the beginning of most discussions, facilitators ask questions in the hopes of generating responses – and the more the merrier! But have you ever asked a question that resulted in a fairly long silence as attendees tried to get their bearings? To avoid this, do some of the heavy lifting for them by situating participants in the context required to answer your question. If, for example, you’re asking about issues with the current purchasing process?”
Chances are that people will leap at the opportunity to speak to their experiences quickly because you’ve created an image or scene for them to speak to. Contrast this with a question like, “what are some of the problems with our purchasing process?” and see what a difference an image can make.
It can be tough to consistently ask descriptive, scenario-based questions instead of more straightforward ones, so keep some key question stems in mind: imagine, consider, think about, remember, etc.
A great way to keep the focus of the conversation between participants instead of directed at you, ping ponging is also a gentle way to invite less chatty people into the conversation. In essence, this technique involves redirecting a question posed to the facilitator toward another meeting attendee or the whole group. If, for example, someone asks if you’ve had any experience with a specific supplier under consideration, you simply put the question to the group – or a specific participant you know has the required expertise: “great question. Jordan, can you speak to that?”
At its best, ping ponging feels like you’re deftly leveraging group expertise. But be careful, if you’re internal to the organization and it’s used too often it might start to sound evasive.
Closed questions – the kinds that required a one-word or factual answer – have a bad reputation for shutting down discussion. But sometimes that’s exactly what you’re aiming for. Use closed questions to move on to the next step in your meeting process, to create closure at the end of a discussion, or to solicit specific information: “have we sufficiently covered the second recommendation? (after responses) Yes? Great, let’s move on.”
Tip: The next time you’re faced with a rambler, try a closed question to summarize their contribution before moving on: “So, Ashley, you’re concerned about cost overrun, given some of the tech requirement unknowns?’
Innovation expert Inge Christensen argues that BABS – biases, assumptions, and blind spots – are one of the biggest drags on creative thinking. Approaching a challenge with our BABS intact will likely result in proposed solutions that are fairly similar to what we’re doing now, so how do we break free? Ask questions that:
Shift perspective – what would our client (shareholder/competition/environmentalist, etc.) say?
Find similarities – sure, a back-up system and a community garden are different, but how are they similar? Look for new insights by comparing unusual items. Open up a definition – hamstrung by a limited resource (time, money, talent)? How can you fill this gap by opening up the definition of the resource required? Remember when crowd sourcing sounded weird? This practice is a classic example of an expansive definition at work
Ask participants to refrain from asking questions or making statements that start with, “but…” Invariably they negate or minimize what was just said, and during collaborative discussions we’re trying to build on the ideas of others, not cut them down. You can feel the difference between these two examples:
“But won’t that take too long to implement?”
Yes, and we can ask the IT Helpdesk to support roll out to avoid delays.
A technique facilitators use to spark further discussion isn’t technically a question, though it helps if you raise your voice at the end. “Echoing” is a simple technique of repeating the last few words someone said as an encourager. When a participant trails off and you feel there’s more to uncover, try repeating the last two words said as a question.
Do you have a unique meeting challenge not covered by one of our blog posts? We’re always looking for different dilemmas to discuss in our articles!