A Series of Questions

Prepared Questions in Facilitator Notes (all rights reserved)

In many cases the work of a facilitator is simply to raise questions.

You may do this so that you can collect, collate and report the responses.  I am currently asking people questions about their organisation's current and future strategy.  I am enjoying this process, as it is about engaging people across the organisation in creating the new strategy.  Many organisations restrict involvement in strategic planning to people in the most senior positions in the organisation.  They do not ask people across the organisation about strategy.

Collecting, collating and reporting responses is a legitimate reason to ask questions, but not the only one. This post includes some more.

You might use questions during an activity to broaden or deepen the perspective that people are taking.  In this case you are 'prompting' people to think in a particular way, or to try something.  It is good to use a question here, as people have greater choice than they do if you give an instruction.  They may choose to reject what you are suggesting, which is not necessarily a bad thing. (Unless of course you have all the answers, in which case, what you are doing may not really be 'facilitation'.)
When an organisation is going through change, questions may be used not so much to get answers, but to encourage people to see the world differently.  I have worked with a number of organisations undergoing substantial change.  Typically these changes involve changing beliefs and attitudes, rather than changing premises or lines of supervision (although these tangible manifestations of change may also be undertaken).

Some More Prepared Questions in Facilitator Notes (all rights reserved)

In communication training much is said about open and closed questions.  However, I am more interested in the various forms that open questions take.  Truly open questions should allow people to give simple and honest answers.  Leading questions encourage people to answer in particular ways.  There are many types of leading questions.  Emotionally laden questions can use levers like guilt to encourage people to answer in particular ways.  These may use family ties, organisational ties or other ties (like patriotism), to manipulate people's thinking and their answers.  When questions point out conflict between 'word and deed', they can cause consternation.

Sometimes many similar questions are used to find out whether people can answer them consistently.  This is used in interrogation as well as facilitation.

You may need to be careful when you use some of the techniques described here.  It is easy to be patronising or to communicate your own prejudices.

Sometimes there is a question that you believe needs to be asked, but you do not know how to ask it without betraying your bias, or just seeming biased.  Maybe it cannot be asked.  Or maybe you should save it until you can see how to ask it without upsetting people.

It is good to prepare some questions (as illustrated by the extracts from my facilitator notes from a couple of actual projects).  However, it is also important to be flexible.  It may be useful to 'depart from the script' to pursue a new line of questioning, or to have a discussion which you had not planned.  It is useful to allow extra time for this, so you do not feel pressured to 'get back on topic', possibly abandoning the new tack and missing out on unexpected insights.

There is a lot of 'gut feel' (intuition) in knowing what to ask.  When you are preparing questions, be open minded and come back to your list a few times before you settle on a particular approach.  And during the session, again be open minded.  Don't be afraid to pursue an only partially related topic, as new insights can come that way.
Yet More Prepared Questions in Facilitator Notes (all rights reserved)
When asking questions, you may choose to name a specific person. You may do this to draw them into the discussion, or to encourage them to share an idea or a perspective that they have previously shared with you.  Use this sparingly, as it seems most useful that way.

Although you might be reluctant to allow it to happen, some people may be quite happy and comfortable observing and listening, but not obviously participating.  I prefer to let this happen, unless I have a very good reason for drawing them into the discussion.  (One important tip here is that you should not assume that silence means hostility.  It can mean many other things, many of which are neutral to your process.)

The order in which you ask questions can be important.  If you are trying to get people to make a commitment, it might be worth finding out their attitudes first; or if you are writing an action plan, you might discuss risks and constraints before you discuss the actual tasks, which helps to ensure the action plan is feasible and achievable.

I love to have a goal.  Alongside the goal of achieving whatever outcome the session is primarily about, one of my facilitation goals is to ask sound and practical questions which elicit responses that the participants did not know they were going to share with me.