The Art of Posing the Right Question

I’ve philosophised enough for the moment about broader issues surrounding facilitation. I think it’s time to get practical and am excited to hear from other facilitators about their practical experiences of asking the right questions (yes, it’s a subtle kick to get writing!)

ask and listen

ask and listen

I’ve just read a useful book (“Wege zur erfolgreichen Teamentwicklung”, by Daniel Meier – with good tips on using questions to get the the bottom of things. In theory I sometimes think the probing can get slightly annoying: after the “What” question comes the “How”, then the “How many”, “When” then the “And who” followed by more of the “What, how, when, who, etc.” all over again. But I like the logic Meier suggests: After asking participants to formulate their aims, they are asked how they will feel if the aim is realised. And then what their colleagues will say when the aim is realised. And then what their clients will have to say about it too. But it really does work. It’s not as annoying as it looks on paper. Give it a try.

Talking about general facilitation questions, we should look at the no-go question “Why?”. We’re all taught early on to steer well clear of the dreaded “Why” as facilitators. Why? Because when we pose the “Why” question, our participants will immediately feel challenged, threatened or aggravated and will respond with anger, defensiveness or passivity. Hm. I’m not sure that’s really the end of it. I think it depends on why you’re asking “Why?” Let’s look at an example.

Michael (participant) says: “You know, I think we should go for the second option.”
Facilitator: “Why?”

What’s the facilitator possibly voicing with his “Why?”
a) “What do you like most about the second option?”
b) “Who said you should have an opinion on this at all?”

The “Why?” question as posed in version a) is constructive, shows interest in what Michael thinks and the reasons he has for making his suggestion and also draws Michael’s emotions into the discussion with the word “like”. The “Why?” question posed in version b) is aggressive, antagonistic and downright rude. a) is a classic facilitation question. b) is totally unacceptable unless you’d like to stop being a facilitator pretty quick.

But is a) really always better than just asking “Why?” I must admit, I’m not all that experienced at asking the “Why” question. I’m completely paranoid that the result would be understood as b). I’m going to give it a go though, as I’m pretty sure if I transmit enough of the trust and esteem I feel for my participants in actively listening and through my bearing and attitude, the “Why?” will head off in direction a). But, better than a), it’s not at all manipulative. “Why?” is straight and neutral. a) is putting words and concepts into Michael’s head. Who said he “likes” anything at all? He only said, he thinks we should “go” for the second option.

Let’s continue this thought process, dealing next with open and closed questions. I’d love any ideas you may have.


One thought on “The Art of Posing the Right Question

  1. Katrina Mitchell

    I have good experience with “why” and yes, the trust and rapport you’ve built up already makes all the difference. “Tell me more about that…” is another neutral way to elicit more dialog.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s