Great facilitators are instinctively good at listening to comments, concluding when probing is necessary and determining the exact question needed to draw out missing information.  How do facilitators know when to probe?  How do they determine what questions to ask?

We teach facilitators 12 questioning techniques in The Effective Facilitator and Advanced Facilitation Skills.  Each technique is designed to address a specific type of situation common in group interactions. This article will focus on two of the advanced questioning techniques: drilling down and discerning.

Drilling Down

When disagreements occur in a discussion, frequently the disagreement is due to a poor understanding of why each person supports his/her position.  As facilitators, our job is to move the discussion away from the positions and drill down to the real issues.

The Battle

  • Optimist: I  believe the best alternative to solving this problem is to pull a team of people together, let them develop a consensus solution and present it to management for approval.
  • Naysayer: That’s a bad idea.
  • Optimist: No, it isn’t.  In my old company, we’ve tried this same strategy on numerous issues with considerable success.
  • Naysayer: Nope.  That stuff may work elsewhere, but not here.  Not a chance.
  • Optimist: I don’t understand why you are being so negative.
  • Naysayer: I’m not being negative.  I’m just telling you like it is.  That won’t work.

When the Naysayer blurts out, “That’s a bad idea,” it is natural for the Optimist to feel she is being attacked.  And, when under attack, the classic response is flight (concede the point) or fight (object).  The Optimist chooses to fight, and therefore, we have a battle on our hands.  The Optimist believes her knock-out punch is to explain the “considerable success” her approach achieved in a prior experience.  Unfortunately, the knock-out punch is easily deflected, and the battle continues.

As facilitators, we know that most often neither flight nor fight is the appropriate response.  When disagreements occur, often, the appropriate response is to seek understanding by drilling down to the source of the disagreement.  If someone believes something is a “bad idea,” the facilitator’s goal is to ensure that the group has a chance to understand why.  Let’s try this discussion again.

Drilling Down

  • Optimist: I  believe the best alternative to solving this problem is to pull a team of people together, let them develop a solution and present it to management for approval.
  • Naysayer: That’s a bad idea.
  • Facilitator: You may very well be right.  Help us understand – why do you believe it’s a bad idea?
  • Naysayer: Two years ago we wasted six days in team meetings around improving the hiring process, and management didn’t implement a thing.
  • Facilitator: What do you believe is the reason management didn’t implement a thing?
  • Naysayer: They said they didn’t see the benefit.
  • Optimist: Well, it sounds like if we do this team approach, we will have to make sure that we get management’s commitment upfront to implement our recommendations if we can demonstrate adequate benefit.
  • Naysayer: I doubt if they will be willing to give that commitment.  But, if they do, I’m willing to call their bluff.

Of course, not all disagreements are solved simply by identifying the source of the disagreement. And that is why we teach facilitators six strategies for building consensus and when and how to use each one.


Another technique for probing is discerning.  A group session is typically divided into a series of agenda items that come together to achieve a desired end.  For example, the session purpose and agenda for a strategic planning session might look like the following.

Sample Agenda

Purpose: Develop the mission, broad goals, measurable objectives and specific strategies for an organization


A. Introduction

B. Review the Situation Analysis

C. Develop Vision, Mission, Goals

D. Define Guiding Principles

E. Develop Objectives

F. Identify Critical Success Factors and Barriers

G. Develop Strategies

H. Review and Close

Though the agenda is divided into several parts, participants often drift into other areas.  A less discerning facilitator might inadvertently allow the group to drift aimlessly among the various agenda items without reaching a sense of completion or closure.

To avoid aimless drifting and recording a mix of topics under an agenda topic, the facilitator must understand the characteristics of each agenda item.  He should be able to distinguish a strategy from a guiding principle or an objective. An example follows of a discerning facilitator in action.


  • Facilitator: Now that we have completed agenda items A through F, our next step is to develop strategies to address our critical success factors and barriers.  Remember, strategies are the things that we do.  They are activities with a defined start and stop.  Let’s take this first critical factor, “legislative support.” What strategies…
  • Confused: I think the thing we should do is increase the awareness of the state legislators about our programs.
  • Facilitator: That sounds like a nice objective.  Remember that strategies are the things you do.  So, let me ask you, we could “increase awareness of the state legislators” by doing what?
  • Confused: Oh, I get it:  increase awareness by holding a legislative day once a year at the beginning of the session. That is something we can do.
  • Facilitator: Okay, what other strategies might we consider to address “legislative support”?
  • Confused Too: At our meetings, when we discuss any initiative, we should always consider how we can get the legislators involved or at least informed.
  • Facilitator: That certainly sounds like something we would want to do.  But, it doesn’t really have a start and an end because we would want to always do it.  That sounds like a nice policy for our guiding principles. So, is it okay if we add this to our list of potential guiding principles?

While this example focuses on discernment in strategic planning, the probing skill also applies to many types of sessions.  For example, if we were identifying problems with the hiring process in a process improvement session, a participant might say, “One of our problems is we need to create a policy and procedures manual.”  Once more, the discerning facilitator must understand that this comment is a candidate for improvement – not a problem.  The facilitator should skillfully redirect this comment – “Creating the policy and procedures manual sounds like an improvement.  Is it okay if we capture that on the ‘Improvements’ board?… But, it does sound like there is a problem.  Let me ask you – what are you seeing that says we need a policy and procedures manual?  … Okay, let’s list that as the problem.”

To learn (and practice) more facilitation skills, register for our flagship course, The Effective Facilitator. This course provides a comprehensive, structured approach leading groups toward better results.