In a prior blog, I introduced “The Secret of the Starting Question” – a time-tested strategy for creating a question that stimulates a bonfire of responses from the participants. However, once participants begin responding, it is likely that only some of the responses will clearly align with the topic. Other comments may seem to be unclear; others only indirectly related to the discussion, and still others may appear completely irrelevant. Professional facilitators know to respond to these comments with questions, not statements, to help guide the group to resolution.
We use the term “Reacting Questions” to refer to the questions a facilitator asks in reaction to the responses from participants. In this blog let’s focus on six reacting questions in particular. And for contrast, let’s compare how a non-facilitator and a professional facilitator might respond. Note that in each case that follows, the non-facilitator makes a statement, whereas the facilitator asks a question. By asking questions, the facilitator encourages participants to seek their own solutions—they create the solutions, they understand them, and they accept them.
|The Perception||Non-Facilitator |
|Facilitator Response||Question Type and Purpose|
|You don’t think what was said is correct.||“I don’t think that is correct.”||“Help me understand. Why is that important?”||Direct Probe |
|You don’t believe everyone understands what is said, but you think you do.||“Let me explain to everyone what he is saying…”||“It sounds like what you are saying is…is that right?”||Playback Question to clarify what you heard the person say|
|You don’t understand what is said, and are not sure anyone else does||“I don’t understand your comment.”||“Is the reason that is important because…”||Indirect Probe to provide a way for the participant to clarify|
|A potentially suitable solution has been overlooked||“I think we should…”||“Are there solutions in the area of…?”||Leading Question to seek other solutions|
|The point does not appear to be relevant to the current discussion||“That point is irrelevant. Let’s move on.”||“That’s an interesting point. Can we put that on the issues list so we don’t forget it, and then get back to…?”||Redirection Question to get the conversation back on track|
|The group has stalled||“Let’s move on to the next topic…”||“We have covered (a), (b), (c)… what else might we do to…?”||Prompt Question to help keep the group moving|
These six reacting questions provide ways for facilitators to help keep the team focused and on track—all simply by asking questions. Let’s examine each one.
After you ask a great starting question and participants begin responding, you may find yourself wondering how some of the responses even apply to the topic. Rather than say, “That doesn’t apply,” or “That isn’t correct,” professional facilitators know that it is important to ask a question, rather than make a statement, so as to empower the participants to come to their own conclusions.
In our work at Leadership Strategies, we use “direct probes” to clarify or challenge. Direct probes can come in many forms. Here are three common examples:
- “Help me understand, Why is that important?”
- “Can you tell me more about that?”
- “How do you mean?”
As described above, you use the direct probe to challenge or gain clarity on a participant’s response. Suppose, however, that the person you are speaking with is a bit shy and unassuming. If you ask a direct probe, the person may assume he/she is incorrect, shut down, and give little or no response.
In this case, an indirect probe might be much more appropriate. You make up a possible reason and provide it in the question:
“Is the reason that’s important because…?”
Through the reason given, the indirect probe validates and helps affirm the comment. We find that the participant is then more likely to clarify the response and give the actual reason for his/her own support.
It happens all the time doesn’t it? The group gets into a deep discussion on an issue and someone brings up a completely unrelated subject. Someone responds, another jumps in, and before anyone realizes it, the conversation has gone completely off-topic. The group came together to discuss ways to improve employee communications, and yet spent the last 15 minutes solving world hunger!
Master facilitators know the importance of keeping conversations focused and on track. When a person brings up a subject that appears to be unrelated to the topic, we ask a redirection question to attempt to get the conversation back on track:
“That’s an interesting point. May I put that on the issues list so we don’t forget it, and then let’s get back to…?”
Note that the redirection is a question; it is not a statement. You are asking permission to redirect the topic from the center of the conversation to the issues list.
What if the person doesn’t want the topic redirected?
Master facilitators then invoke the power of the group.
“Joe has indicated he wants to spend time on…Joe, about how much time? Since this wasn’t on the original agenda, can we agree that we will let the group make the decision? Let’s quickly use informed majority as we discussed as a ground rule. This means we need at least one person to speak for and against the idea. Joe would you speak for why you believe this is important to do? Would someone speak for not modifying the agenda? Any other comments? Okay would you raise your hand if you are for modifying the agenda as requested. Now, raise our hand if you are for NOT modifying the agenda. The group’s decision is to…”
At the end of the meeting, don’t forget the issues list!
At the end of the meeting, every item comes off the issues list by using three questions:
- Have we covered it? (if yes, move on to the next issue)
- Do we need to cover it? (if no, move on to the next issue starting with the first question)
- Do we need to cover it now? (if yes, give a time limit for the discussion; if no, move the issue to the action list and add a date defining when the issue will be covered)
As a facilitator, you have likely experienced times when a participant has made a comment and:
- You don’t believe everyone understands what is said, but you think you do; or
- You want to make sure you understand the comment before moving forward; or
- You want to slow down the conversation to make sure people are hearing one another; or
- You just want to let the participant know you hear him/her.
In all four of these cases, you can use the playback question as a means to gain acknowledgement or needed clarity:
“It sounds like what you are saying is…is that right?”
The playback question is a superb tool for ensuring understanding by everyone before moving forward.
Imagine facilitating a management group that was discussing ways to improve employee engagement. As they were brainstorming alternatives, you recognize that they are not coming up with strategies that involve the management group themselves learning skills, such as facilitative leadership and adaptive communication, that would equip them with fundamental engagement strategies. Instead of directly suggesting these specifics, you ask a more general leading question:
Might there be solutions in the area of…?
In this particular case, you might ask, “Might there be solutions in the area of improving the skills of managers?” By asking the question, you are giving the group an opportunity to consider other thoughts that they might be overlooking. Perhaps someone might say, “We could help our managers by giving them examples and strategies for how to successfully engage workers in the workplace.”
A Word of Caution
There is a traditional school of thought around facilitation that would say the leading question crosses the line from facilitation into participation. This school of thought, which brings an organizational development perspective, strongly advocates, “The facilitator is responsible for the process. The participants are responsible for the content.” And therefore, a question that even hints at a content suggestion crosses the line that facilitators must avoid crossing at all costs.
Coming from the consulting perspective, however, where we have fiduciary responsibility to offer our best knowledge, we believe using questions to ask, rather than tell, gives the facilitator an opportunity to offer insights without unduly biasing the group. Of course, you will want to gain agreement from the session sponsor and the meeting participants that this role is appropriate and desired by them.
Leading questions can be a great way of helping the group consider alternatives they may be overlooking.
If you were facilitating a group brainstorming ways to improve employee engagement, if the group stalls out in providing responses to the question, the facilitator would simply ask:
Sometimes, to help stimulate the group’s thinking, you might repeat the last few responses before asking the prompt question.
We have [X], [Y], and [Z]. What else?
Or, if the group is prone to go off topic, you might use the extended form of the prompt question. With the extended prompt, instead of simply asking, “What else?”, you repeat the entire question.
What else might we do to improve employee engagement?
You might find it helpful to mix the various forms of the prompt question to better maintain group focus.
Why Expand Your Tool Box of Reacting Questions?
Imagine being a carpenter with only one tool, the hammer. And when all you have is a hammer, of course every problem looks like a nail. Similarly, most of us have only one or two question types that we use most frequently. Before I learned this material, most of my reacting questions were direct probes (“Why is that important?” or “Tell me more about that…”) and prompts (“What else?”). This meant that there may have been times when a redirection was more appropriate (“That’s in interesting point, can we put it on the issues list…”) or when it would have been better to ask a leading question, “Are there solutions in the area of…” or a playback to move the group along, “It sounds like what you are saying is…is that right?”) I was missing these opportunities to help the group simply because I had a limited tool kit.
You can increase your skill and comfort with these reacting questions by using them regularly in casual conversations, whether at work or in your personal life. You may be surprised by how people readily respond. And indeed, in some cases, you may discover that they find you more engaging and conversational!
To learn more about facilitation skills, consider our course, The Effective Facilitator. The four-day course provides a structured approach for leading teams and facilitating meetings and covers over 100 techniques for getting amazing results from groups.