How to Ignite a Fire with the Right Starting Question

Great facilitators demonstrate what appears to many as an innate ability to ask the right questions. They use questioning techniques when preparing, starting, focusing, gathering information, building consensus, and every other stage of our facilitation methodology. The starting question is the term we use for the question the facilitator asks to begin a discussion.

Typically, a starting question is used at the beginning of every agenda item in a facilitated process. For example, for creating a plan to fix the hiring problem, the facilitator might use the following agenda:

  1. Getting started (purpose, personal objectives, process, ground rules)
  2. How does the process work today?
  3. What are the problems and root causes?
  4. What are potential improvements?
  5. How might we prioritize these improvements?
  6. How will the new process work?
  7. How will we implement this new process?
  8. Review and close

Agenda items B through F represent the core of the work for the facilitated session. For each of these agenda item, there is a time when the facilitator asks a question and expects the participants to begin responding. The ability of the group to respond to a question is significantly impacted by the quality of the question asked by the facilitator. It is much like starting a fire.

When facilitators use the wrong material to ask questions, they will get flickering flames that they have to blow on and feed continually to just keep the flames going. When facilitators use the right material, they quickly have a bonfire of responses with people hardly able to wait to make their contributions.

The Secret of the Starting Question

How do you form a question that will get a bonfire of responses? Let’s examine two different questions to understand the secret.

Question Type A: “The first thing we want to talk about are inputs. What are the inputs to the scheduling process?”

Question Type B: “If you were about to develop the school schedule, what information would you need to have close by?”

What is it about the second question that makes it a better question? When we make this same inquiry to people we train in facilitation skills, here are a sample of responses we get:

Why is Question Type “B” Better?

  • Uses their language (“school schedule,” “information”)
  • More personal, addresses them directly (“you”)
  • Action oriented (“about to”)
  • Open ended (“what information”)

While these are true points, they don’t quite focus directly on the secret of the starting question. When we take the students through a quick exercise, they understand the secret in a way they helps them to retain it. The facilitator asks the students to close their eyes and listen to question type A. After saying the question, the facilitator asks them to open their eyes and to raise their hands if they saw something as he was reading the question. One or two typically say they saw a flow chart or diagram or something of that sort. Most indicate they saw nothing.

However, when the facilitator asks them to close their eyes a second time and to then listen to question type B, we have a different result. Typically two-thirds, if not more, see an image. The image described by most involves sitting at a desk with items they use for scheduling arranged on the desk. Herein lies the secret of the starting question.

Great starting questions draw a vivid image of the answers.

Why is a vivid image key to the starting question? When the facilitator draws a vivid image, the participants can literally “see” the answers, and can begin responding right away.

Type A versus Type B Questions

Contrast this with the Type A starting question. While a Type B starting question draws a vivid image, the Type A starting question simply asks what you as the facilitator want to know. If you want to know the inputs to the scheduling process, you ask “What are the inputs to the scheduling process?” After you ask the question, the participants have to put their hands to their heads and begin thinking of answers. What are they doing? They are probably trying toimagine themselves back at their school the last time they did scheduling. They are probably trying to draw the image that the facilitator did not draw for them! Unfortunately, this effort usually results in the room going silent for several moments – just at the time when the facilitator is looking for responses. In essence, due to the poor starting question, the facilitator has driven the room silent!

It is important to recognize that Type A questions are the “default.” If you do not think about your question in advance, more times than not you will ask a Type A question. For example, suppose the agenda calls for the group to identify problems with the current hiring process. If you have not prepared an image building Type B question in advance, more than likely you will ask a Type A question (“What are the problems you have encountered with the hiring process?”).

How to Ask Type B Questions Every Time

How do you make sure that your starting questions are Type B and not Type A? To draw an image, Type B questions must start with an image building phrase. The box below shows several imaging building phrases. Your starting question should construct an image that will lead your participants to visualize their answers.

  • Step 1: Start with an image building phrase:

“Think about . . . “
“Imagine . . . “
“If . . . “
“Consider . . .”

The image building phrase puts participants in the scenario and gets them ready

  • Step 2: Extend the image to see the answers.

By extending the image, you give the participants the time and the image needed to see their answers

  • Step 3: Ask the “Type A” Question

Now that they see the answers, you ask the direct question that prompts the participants to respond with their answers.

Sample Starting Questions

Let’s run through a few examples of Type A and Type B questions based on the sample scenario presented earlier for the hiring process. First, let’s look at the Type A question (the information that the facilitator wants to know) then let’s compare that to a Type B question in which the participants can visualize the answers.

Type A: How does the hiring process work today, what are the steps?

Type B: Imagine for a second that one of your employees comes into your office, announces his resignation, and says he will stick around for up to 30 days until you get his replacement hired and trained. You know you have to get moving right away, so you begin listing the steps you have to go through to bring someone on board. You list all the actions you have to take, the things others

Type A: What are the problems with the current process? have to do and so on. Let’s list some of these things, who has one?

Type B: Think about the last time you had to hire someone. Consider the things that were real problems, the things that got you frustrated, the things that worked very poorly, took too long, or just seemed to be a waste of time. The things that made you say, “There’s got to be a better way to do this!” What are some of those frustrating problems with the current hiring process?

Interested in learning how to put our facilitator’s methodology into practice? Check out our course, The Effective Facilitator.