two people sitting in a trench shaped like a question mark

Using questions in workshops

Questioning is a technique often used by facilitators during workshops, meetings or one-on-one mentoring or coaching as an alternative to presenting information and answers. Questioning is about asking the individual or group you're working with a question, or series of questions, to enable them to find their own solutions to the challenges they face.

Questioning has (at least) two clear benefits over the more traditional way of presenting information or solutions to a group:

An example:

You want to help an inexperienced group gain some skills at giving media interviews. You could give them a presentation on top tips for interview technique. Or you could ask them questions:

"Think of an interview you've seen or heard recently - did the interviewee come across well? ... Why? What made the interview a success? ... What was it about the way they spoke that made them sound so authoritative? ... Anything else? ... What did they do that was less successful? ... What do you think might have worked better instead? OK, so to summarise, you think that a good interview...."

When to use questions:

When the group is reflecting on, or interpreting, an experience (e.g. when 'debriefing' a roleplay or simulation game):

When you want to draw out principles or criteria from an exercise and see how they might be applied in a real situation:

An example:

The meeting that you're facilitating has just come up with lots of ideas for a community festival. Asking the group a series of questions will help them to narrow down the ideas to a few options to investigate further. Questions could include:

Which of these options fit with our objectives? How much time/ energy/ resources are these going to need? What do we have most enthusiasm and energy for? What are the obstacles to each option?

How to ask questions

Here are some strategies for ensuring your questioning gets good results:

Have a clear aim. What learning are you trying to achieve? Ask questions that reflect this

Plan your questions. Prepare in advance. You can't always predict where your questioning might take you, but having a few prepared questions to get you started can make all the difference.

Choose the right words. There's a big difference between "How did you feel?" and "What did you think?". Are you wanting to discuss emotion and experience (the first question), or ideas (the second question)?

Draw on people's existing experience to help them find solutions to a problem - "Does this remind you of anything that you do in your everyday life? What strategies do you have for dealing with it in that context? How might those be applied here?"

Use open questions when you want to open up and explore issues. Open questions are questions that cannot be answered by a simple "yes" or "no" answer. They start with words such as 'Why...?' or 'What happened?'.

Open questions encourage people to give you a more detailed answer. They can also take away the option of saying 'no'.

An example - open questions

Instead of saying "Would anyone like to take the minutes?" - a closed question to which the group could all reply "no", you might ask "Who's going to take the minutes?" - an open question that doesn't take no for an answer.

Use closed questions when you want to deliberately restrict options.

An example - closed questions 

"Would you like to stop now, or go on for another 15 minutes?" excludes the possibility of going on for more than 15 minutes. Whereas the open question: "When would you like to end the meeting?" could leave you meeting for another hour or more!

What to do when you don't get an answer

Have a Plan B in case your prepared question is met with silence. Have an idea of what you might ask next to provoke an answer or to take the group deeper into an issue.

Break the issue down.... If you don't get a response to a broad question, break it down and ask a series of specific questions. If "What have you learnt about communication?" doesn't get you anywhere, you might ask "Well, what happened in the roleplay when you were approached by the 'police officer'?"... "What was it about the way you were approached that made you feel that way?"... "Was it just the way they spoke to you?".. "OK, so you think that their body language was important? How important?"... and so on.

.... Or ask a broader question. Sometimes when you start with a specific question you won't get an answer. Try going back to the big picture before returning to your specific line of inquiry. Broad questions can warm people up for the specific learning, and give them time to reflect.

Rephrase. When a question doesn't get an answer try asking it again using different wording. Avoid just repeating the same question. The chances are that if the participants couldn't (or wouldn't) answer it the first time, they're not going to do so just because you say it again!

picture of people wandering around a maze made of question marks

How not to ask questions

There are circumstances in which asking a question can be the wrong approach, or we can ask a question in an inappropriate way:

Not enough thinking time: Give your participants time to think before expecting the answer!

Putting people on the spot: Think twice before asking a question to a specific individual when you could just as well ask it to the group. Some people find being put on the spot very stressful.

The 'right' answer: If you're looking for a very specific answer, be very careful about asking your question. There are several dangers. Anyone that answers and gives you a 'wrong' answer may feel disempowered or stupid. Also you may come across as if you're saying "I know the right answer (and you don't), aren't I clever?".

Leading questions: If questioning is useful to get people thinking for themselves, then asking a leading question can undermine the whole point, and possibly seem patronising into the bargain. Phrase your questions carefully. You might not always get the answer you hoped for - find the value in what you get, and use other questions to bring you back on track.

Rhetorical questions: If you're going to ask rhetorical questions (questions to which you're not actually expecting an answer), be clear that that's what you're doing. Otherwise you'll confuse people, and they'll be nervous about answering future questions.

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