The art of asking questions

I remember when I was growing up, I’d ask my mum how to do something and she’d often respond with “what do you think you should do?”. We’d then have a conversation about the various options and solutions. Even though she clearly knew the answer, she also was aware that I could find it too, and was encouraging me to reflect and think for myself.

This is always in my mind when I’m facilitating workshops. The participants are often exploring a range of unknowns, and they might look to me as the “person at the front of the room” to give them answers. But, that’s not my job. My role is to create an environment where participants feel comfortable putting forward their ideas. Even if you can clearly see the answer, there’s real value in turning the question back on the workshop attendees and finding the right way to help them come to an insight themselves. They should feel that they’ve done the work, and you’re just providing them with the tools to help them make discoveries and develop ideas. This also has an impact long after the workshop when they realise that they’re fully capable of generating good solutions themselves.

Much of this comes down to asking the right questions, and there are lots of ways to phrase them. I’ve found that the real art comes from having a genuine curiosity – really wanting to find out more and dig deeper. We know that open questions that require a longer, reflective answer are better than closed questions that end a discussion quickly. Some other techniques to use are:

Ask the “stupid” questions
A big benefit of being an external facilitator is being able to ask questions that others feel they can’t, because they think they should already know.  This might be where knowledge is assumed in a team but there’s a lack of clarity. You can ask “help me understand” questions to gather that information.

5 whys
Participants in a workshop might not have had the opportunity to really explore what’s happening in a situation and why. 5 whys is a tool which helps to uncover an underlying cause. Start with the identified problem – “X is happening. Why?” – and for each answer that’s given (which must be fact-based rather than an assumption), ask another ‘why’ to probe further, a minimum of 5 times.

Adding constraints
In brainstorming, you’ll often need to add constraints to help participants move past the first and most available ideas. “What if…” is a great way to start a question to help them explore unknowns in a creative way. e.g.“What if we didn’t have X? What if we could only do X?”. Or maybe a group is finding it hard to list priorities when in decision-making mode. For example, “what if we only had one week to complete the project, rather than one month, what would be essential to do?”.

Future mapping
Encouraging people to imagine themselves in a scenario – past, existing or future – can be a useful technique. A future mapping exercise asks people to imagine what things might be like in a certain time ahead (e.g. five, ten years) and gets them to build up a mental image. You can help them to describe the details in this image by asking probing questions.

These are just a few of the ways you can think about questions to help your workshop participants to come to answers themselves – there are many, many more! The ability to ask great questions is a key skill for facilitators – both for designing workshops and on the actual day – and used together with genuine curiosity, is something that becomes much easier with practice.

Image credit: Raymond Bryson on Flickr

4 thoughts on “The art of asking questions

  1. Alison, great posting about the importance of questions. I try to create the right environment for my management students, so they feel free to both ask questions and to answer questions posed by their colleagues. Teachers don’t have all the answers!

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