Fabulous Facilitation: Are You Asking Powerful Questions?
I knew it was going to be a long week when my co-facilitator asked the group, “So, what happens when a submersible pump fails.” Their eyes spoke louder than the deafening silence. The skinny guy on the front row responded, “Don’t YOU know?” “You are an idiot!” exclaimed the old guy on the left side with a deep stare. The slightly heavy woman in the middle, who looked like everyone’s big sister, retorted, "why don't you just tell us.” The fat guy in the back looked around, cut his eyes back at me, and said, “Where are the doughnuts?”
Yup, it was going to be a long week. Facilitating Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) is never fun. Tag teaming the facilitation usually helps everyone stay fresh. But as Forrest Gump said about the box of chocolates, when you co-facilitate in a Fortune 500 company you never know what you are going to get.
Powerful questions are enablers of better facilitation. Using powerful questions takes awareness, discipline, practice, and self-appraisal. Facilitators need powerful questions to get better participant answers and create better results.
Powerful Questions Defined
Powerful questions lead participants to active thought, debate, and compelling results. Weak questions do the opposite – as my FMEA facilitation friend proved. Introductory questions and clarifying questions are the two major classes of powerful questions.
An example of a weak introductory question is, “What are the problems with the current procurement process?” If there is one positive aspect, it is that the question is open-ended. However, the question does nothing to stimulate the imagination or experience of the participants. It does nothing to pull individual participants into a group discussion. And the question provides nothing to help establish the group to arrive at realistic solutions.
The powerful introductory question looks something like this. “Let’s move to problems with the procurement process. Think about the last time you had to purchase something. Consider the things that were real problems - the things that got you frustrated. Think about the things that made you say, ‘There has to be a better way to do this!’ What are some of those frustrating problems with the current procurement process?
The question pulls participants into their own experiences. It stirs memories of events that both helped solve problems and caused pain. It provides political cover by moving the discussion from a cultural complaint session to establishing tangible issues to be addressed based on actual events. And it helps eliminate a passive participant response from 'I don't know or ‘who cares’ to a proactive response of ‘this is what happened to me.’ By the nature of the introductory question, participants are providing better answers.
One pointer for providing powerful questions is to start with an imagination phrase such as ‘Consider…,’ ‘Remember…,’ or ‘Think About…’ to get participants ready to see the answers. Then ask the direct question that prompts them to respond.
One word of warning to starting with an imagination phrase is to avoid hypotheticals. Imagination phrases like "If you were queen (or king) for a day…" or "If you have all of the resources in the world…" stimulate responses that are not grounded in reality. Great facilitators remember to focus on the end game of a result that is created, understood, and accepted by all participants. Hypothetical or unrealistic responses often side-track discussions, fail to build practical consensus, and usually do more harm than good.
The second class of powerful questions relates to participant responses. Many scenarios exist, and two are discussed here. The overarching takeaway is to use powerful clarifying questions to pull participants further into discussions that generate better answers and, in turn, produce better results.
The first example of a clarifying question is related to a participant comment that you (the facilitator) do not believe everyone understands what is said, but you (the facilitator) think you do. One form of clarifying question begins, “Let me explain to everyone what Bill is saying….” The facilitator will draw Bill into the conversation deeper by calling Bill by name. This opening also avoids a negative connotation concerning Bill’s clarity by placing the need for clarification on the facilitator. The clarifying question lets Bill confirm his meaning to the group by the facilitator saying, “Bill, it sounds like what you are saying is…. Is that right?”
A second example of a clarifying question is related to a participant comment that you (the facilitator) do not believe everyone understands what is said, and you are not sure anyone else does either. A simple response of “I don’t understand your comment” may get the clarification that the group needs but also raises the potential for conflict. One technique of asking a powerful clarifying question is to pull Jill further into the discussion by calling her name and asking an open-ended follow-up like "Jill, is that important because...?" or “Jill, tell us more about why this is important to you?”
What to Do
Outline the probable content of an upcoming facilitation session
Develop four or five preferred introductory questions (‘Consider…,’ ‘Remember…,’ ‘Think About…’)
Expand on the list of clarifying questions from the two examples provided above
Practice some mock exchanges with colleagues or friends
Record the live session or have a co-facilitator provide feedback
Self-appraise at each break on whether you asked powerful questions
Continually improve with self-appraisal after each session and practice between facilitated sessions
Asking powerful questions makes a facilitated session more efficient, more effective, and more collaborative. Powerful questions produce better outcomes. No one wants to waste their time.
You will know great facilitators by the questions they ask. Resolve to be a great facilitator.
JD Solomon Inc provides facilitation at the nexus of facilities, infrastructure, and the environment. Contact us for more information about facilitation services ranging from Strategic Plans and Board Retreats to Criticality Analysis, Root Cause Analysis, and Capital Program Development.