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Five Tips for Formulating Great Questions

Written by: Sue Lanaday

Asking questions can be tricky. Your goal is to get the person to open up, but not overshare. You also want to ask more than a simple “yes or no” question. Here are some tips on formulating great questions that people will want to answer.

1. Keep questions open-ended and focus on experiences, interests, and wishes

Try to stay away from yes/no questions. If you’re asking a question that suggests a one-word answer, be sure to follow up with a “why?” to draw out an explanation for the answer.

The goal is to get interesting responses from questions that are easy to answer. While different questions may be easier or harder for different people, questions that draw from people’s experience tend to be easier to answer than those that require on-the-spot creative thinking. For example, consider this poor question: “if you could invent one thing, what would it be?” People spend years trying to think up inventions, and you can’t expect someone to come up with an adequate answer in a moment’s time.

2. Understand what your goal is

Determine the type of dialogue and relationships you hope to nurture through your discussion questions. If you have a short period of time, you may simply want to break the ice and get people accustomed to sharing. You should select more superficial questions that don’t require too much thought, discussion, or explanation.

If you want people to get to know one another, network, or find common interests, you’ll need questions that scratch under the surface, but don’t feel too intrusive. If your group knows each other well, but wants to explore a topic more deeply (like stress, team dynamics, ethics, values, etc.), you can select more probing questions.

3. Make the questions “safe” and Inspire dialogue and sharing

No matter what level of intimacy you’re seeking among the participants, you want to be sure that they don’t feel like they’re being put on the spot or judged. In part, this can be addressed by setting up ground rules (like listen actively and respect differences), however you can also adjust the way you phrase a question. For instance, if you’re exploring your team’s dynamics, you shouldn’t ask “who’s not pulling their weight?” But you could ask, “what if someone isn’t pulling their weight?”

Thought-provoking questions, which might take a little more time to answer, can also stimulate an interesting discussion. If your desire is to open up conversation, make sure that there is not a right or wrong answer to the question.

4. Mix in “would” and “should” questions

Questions can feel different if they are framed as a personal inquiry (what would I do if…?) versus as a general inquiry (what should we do… or what should one do…?). When formulating questions, consider whether one format or the other would be easier or more comfortable to answer, and which would better promote a positive and productive discussion. For example, these three questions below are all likely to result in different conversations:

  • “What would you do if you witnessed bullying”?
  • “What should you do if you witness bullying”?
  • “What should we do to respond to bullying”?

5. Balance reflective and appreciative questions

Some questions require that people think back on prior experiences. These can be a beneficial way to understand someone’s past, but that perspective ought to be balanced by asking appreciative questions, which focus on goals and on envisioning the future. If, for instance, you want to foster conversation about leadership techniques, you’d want to include prompts that evoke current experience, such as “I make employees feel valued by…” as well as those that promote forward thinking, like “I’d be a better leader if I….”

Summing it Up

Having great questions is most important when it comes to facilitating dynamic conversations. But having a good process is also key. Keep these quick tips in mind:

  • Transparency. Before you begin a Q&A activity, be clear about your goals and intent for the conversation. This will help participants understand how in depth they should make their answer and what they should hope to get out of the experience.
  • Simplicity. Whenever you’re facilitating conversations on any topic, be sure to ask questions that are short, concise. and easy to digest. Long-winded questions are harder to decipher and answer.
  • Repetition. Repeating the question once or twice can give participants additional time to process the question and think of an answer.
  • Ground Rules. If you’re concerned that conversations might be emotionally charged, set a few ground rules to help guide your group. These rules might include: critique ideas but not people; speak only for yourself and avoid generalizations; speak with respect; make sure everyone feels heard and validated; agree to disagree; use “I” statements; and be positive.
  • Timing. Understand that some individuals, and some questions, might require more thinking time. For a rich exchange, don’t rush. Give participants ample time to offer a thoughtful response.

Armed with these tips on formulating questions and facilitating discussions, you can look forward to stress-free conversations and getting to know people a little better.

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