Tools of the Trade: The Question (re-post)

Like journalists, facilitative leaders are interested in the gentle art of questioning. The quality of your questions has a critical impact on the quality of what you can achieve.

Once, when hunting around on the web, I came across an article written by a chap called Chip Scanlan. The title was Tools of the Trade: The Question.

Scanlan’s article contains some effective exhibits of questions that don’t & do work. In each case, he teases out why they fail or succeed.

One indicator he gives is the ratio of question length to answer length. In one case the question, at 107 words, was longer than the 82-word answer. Conversely his Exhibit 3 illustrated:

how a short question (27 words) invites and provokes a much longer (212 word) response. But it’s not just quantity; after all, some politicians and bureaucrats go on as if they were paid the word. Here the result is an answer that provides a nuanced, complete response that would help the reporter understand — and more effectively communicate to the public

Towards better questions

Scanlan ends with A Prescription for Healthier Questions which also works for the facilitative leader. Here’s a composite set of tips:

  1. Whenever possible, prepare questions in advance.
(Proper planning prevents poor performance…)
  2. Ask open-ended questions.
 Questions that start with what, how, or why tend to get more complete responses. It’s about opening out the space and expanding the information available to everyone.
  3. One question at a time.
 When the Chasers fire off 10 quick questions at an unsuspecting celebrity it makes for good comedy, not good answers. People do need time to respond.
  4. Let the questions do the work. 
A small amount of background is often good. Too much is just confusing and can make folks defensive. It’s also pretty silly if your question is lost in all the verbiage. Also, don’t anticipate the response.
  5. The intent behind your question counts for a lot. 
You’re not a barrister grilling a ‘hostile’ witness or a current affairs reporter harassing an subject into making a mistake. You are there to enable a group to build a shared understanding. This requires a “yes, and also…” approach.

So, what’s your experience of successful questions?

Go well!


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