In a previous post, I offered some tips for managing Q and A sessions, when you’re responding to questions from your audience. Now let’s turn the tables. When your role is less presentational—as when you’re training or facilitating—it’s usually you who’s doing the asking. You pose questions to engage your audience members in discussion. Or to have them explore concepts you’ve just presented. Or maybe you just need to gather information from them. How successful you are in reaching any of those goals often comes down to the kinds of questions you’re asking—so let’s look at a few types you may want to add to your facilitation toolbox.
Questions, in their simplest form, can either be open or closed. Closed questions ask people to recall and repeat information or to reply with a simple yes or no. They’re helpful when you need to take control of the process or move things along to save time. (See 10 ways to improve your facilitation skills) But when you want to spur discussion within the group, you need more open-ended questions that engage higher-order thinking skills, encourage imagination or conjecture, or prompt the sharing of personal opinions and experience.
Open-ended facilitation questions
Here are some open-ended questions that are helpful as discussion-starters, follow-ups, or as ways of redirecting the course of a conversation.
- Prediction questions ask your audience to engage their imaginations, project into the future, and play out ideas and concepts. How might a team with a low Accountability rating react in that situation?
- Justifying questions are great for following up individual statements or opinions, requiring the commenter to provide evidence or support. Ask the question as a simple request for more information, not as a challenge to the speaker’s intelligence. Can you give me an example of when you’ve seen that happen?
- Storybook questions are essential when you’re trying to tease out the full details of a situation or an event. I call them “storybook” questions because they ask you, as the questioner, to think like an inquisitive child being told a bedtime story: “And then what happened? What did it look like? Was it scary? And did the boy escape?” To draw out the full story from an audience or individual, keep asking questions until you have a complete portrait of the event—or at least the details you need to relate it to the discussion at hand. How did you feel when that person challenged you? Where were you sitting when you were at the team meeting?
- Clarifying questions help make sure you or others are understanding the material or keeping up with the conversation. Clarifying questions give speakers the chance to expand on their ideas. Can you put that another way? Could you explain that term: “carve-out”?
- Comparative questions require listeners to make connections or contrasts. How might D-style and i-style team members respond to ambiguity?
- Connective questions ask listeners to make links between the material and their own lived experiences. Does this resonate with what you experience in your work environment? How?
- Return questions bounce a rephrased question back to the questioner, or asks for comment on the original question. This is a great technique to use if you’re not sure where the question is coming from or if you sense there’s a question behind the question. I’m not sure about the point you’re making, Phil. What prompted the question?
- Relay questions pass a rephrased question from one person to another, encouraging conversation within the group. Cheryl asked how her team might increase their trust. Do you have any ideas for her, Pam?
- Summary and synthesis questions are valuable for checking the group’s understanding of what has been presented or said. They also help participants identify important ideas, making them easier to recall. What are the one or two most important ideas that came out of this discussion? What do you understand better now about how your team functions?
If you aren’t accustomed to using these types of open-ended questions, write a few examples of each as you prepare for your next session. Oh, and one final tip about asking questions: bracket your questions with silence. Pause a few seconds before a question to emphasize its importance and give listeners time to focus. Pause directly after a question and resist saying more or repeating the question in a slightly different way. Give your listeners the space to consider the question and formulate a response.
Spending time expanding your repertoire of questions is well worth it. Your audience, trainees and colleagues will appreciate it—and it’s also a way to boost your credibility as a facilitator or trainer. As author James Thurber noted, “It’s better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”
John Capecci of Capecci Communications (Minneapolis) is a trainer and consultant who offers personal coaching, group workshops, and webinars on communication effectiveness.