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How to Use Great Questions for Great Outcomes – Part One

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How to Use Great Questions for Great Outcomes – Part One

The right questions at the right time are essential in meetings and workshops. And this means we have the ability to use great questions for great outcomes. 

Asking the right questions at the right time is a key facilitation skill which can make or break any session. Getting this right differentiates a presenter from a facilitator and engages participants from the start.

That said, questions can easily be overdone. It can be irritating to use them too often, so it’s important to know the purpose of each question you ask. Recently I watched a facilitator enter a room and ask everyone in the room, ‘Who knows what this means? Anyone? Anyone?’. The facilitator went on to explain what she wanted them to know in a condescending tone. It was awful to observe and set her up as a challenger rather than a collaborator. Don’t do that. 

When I train what I call ‘accidental facilitators’ (people who don’t call themselves facilitators, but find themselves in front of groups in meetings, workshops and conferences) I focus on asking simple but powerful questions at the right time and participants report a change in engagement of those they work with and better outcomes overall.

There are three sets of questions that are key to any session.

1. The first and most important questions are about expectations.

When people articulate what they want, they tend to take responsibility for reaching their own goals. Asking, ‘What would be the best outcome of this session?’ is essential in any meeting or workshop. I like to say, ‘When you walk out of this session what will make you look back into the room and say ‘that was really worthwhile’.’

Checking expectations allows you to adapt the planned material to the needs of those in the room. You can also engage participants so that they commit to having their own needs met.

2. The second question, or set of questions, is about who is in the room.

Knowing who is present is great for building connections and inviting participation. Ask questions that uncover at least two aspects about your participants. You might ask where people have come from (geographically) and what their content area is.

Instead of answers that are directed at you as a facilitator, you can request that they stand when their geographic area is called, and remain standing. Then you ask them to sit when their content area is called. Adapt this to two aspects that are important to the outcome of the session you are in.

3. The third set of questions are the ‘ask, don’t tell’ questions.

A great facilitator gets their ego out of the way and asks the participants what they know before filling in the gaps. This technique can be used in almost any setting. Ask questions that invite participants to explore the topic, and apart from answering direct questions asked by the facilitator, you can also invite answers in a mix of what I call 1-2-3.

  1. Answering questions alone (writing exercises) or
  2. Answering questions by discussing in pairs (‘turn to the person next to you and discuss x or y) or
  3. And answering questions through group discussion (for example, divide the group in one of many ways to answer a question set for the group).

In fact, if you just change your style from telling to asking or enquiring, you encourage engagement, retention of the material, and a feeling that the time spent is worthwhile. Those I train find that by just increasing the ratio of asking to telling, they turn didactic learning into engaging connection with better outcomes.

These three sets of questions are the core of a great meeting, workshop or conference.

After including these three sets of questions into your repertoire, you can add better articulated, useful questions that are well placed throughout the session to create the best outcomes.

In part two of this article, I will cover the art of powerful questions and provide a cheat sheet of useful questions to glance at while you are in front of a group.

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