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What You Ask is What You Get

Years ago, as a teacher, I dreaded the silence and blank stares I got after I asked a question to the class. At the time, I blamed the silence on the students' lack of interest, motivation, and intelligence—until I realized that, actually, it was my problem, not theirs. They were silent because my questions were boring!

Since then, as a facilitator, I’ve come to realize that even subtle differences in the questions we ask, and how we ask them, can affect the quality of the answers and outcomes from the group. Asking good questions is fundamental to our work but often overlooked. There are already excellent resources on this topic—The Art of Powerful Questions, Change Your Questions Change Your Life, and the Clean Language approach are three that come to mind—but here are two things I’ve been doing lately to improve my questions and how I ask them.

Avoid the word “should” and passive tense verbs. This one is a no-brainer, but something I slip into by default if I’m not careful. The problem is that these words put participants in a judgmental frame of mind and externalizes the issue, making it about what other people should do, instead of about me and us.

To illustrate, here is a common question we might want to ask a group:

1. “How should our volunteer engagement be improved?”

What kind of answers can we expect from this question? We will likely get a laundry list of vague ideas, like “better incentives,” “outreach,” and “more regular meetings.” Participants will argue for ideas assuming that someone else can and should implement the measures, which doesn't ensure accountability.

Compare this to:

2. “Think back to an instance that you’ve experienced in the past year when volunteers were very engaged. What was that like? What were the contributing factors?”

This question is better because it is more specific and encourages participants to conjure a specific, positive, and personal experience. The discussion will be more rooted in existing best practices. It will be helpful in drawing out what is already working and systematizing it.

Another option is:

3. “Assume that we need to double our volunteer engagement in one month. What would we need to do to achieve this goal?”

Introducing a radical constraint is a great way to generate energy with a question. I would use this type of question when the group is feeling stuck in established ways of doing things. It could be asked as part of a fast-paced brainstorming activity, followed by a discussion to converge and evaluate the ideas.

Second, we all know that open-ended questions are more powerful than closed-ended ones, but how we ask the open-ended questions also matters. If I have put some thought into formulating a good question, I’ve found that the best thing to do is to ask it, let the question drop, and shut up. It is the most difficult thing, after I have asked a question, to just stand there and accept the silence, looks of confusion, and sometimes resistance from the group. But it is crucial to give the group time and space to grapple with the question and wait to see what emerges.

I came to this conclusion after I realized that I was subconsciously trying to steer the participants’ answers toward what I thought were “useful” and “appropriate” responses. In the moment after asking a powerful question, when the participants were still trying to process their thoughts, sensing the silence and discomfort in the room, I would often try to “rescue” the situation by providing examples, clarifying, and rephrasing my question in different ways. But by doing so, I was interjecting my own biases and precluding the possibility for the group to come up with their own answers.*

From the standpoint of the participant, the very process of thinking through a somewhat vague and open-ended question can be frustrating but also transformative. A powerful question challenges people to reflect on an issue from a perspective they hadn’t considered before. If they are exhibiting resistance or confusion, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the question is confusing or irrelevant. It may simply mean that the facilitator needs to step back, wait, and accept their response.

* I'd like to thank Lisa Hosokawa for giving me this insight through an introductory workshop she gave on Clean Language in Tokyo this past summer.

Photo at top by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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