Questioning as a Facilitator
The role of a facilitator is to manage discussions through provision of relevant structure and tools. If performed well, participants will be actively involved, feel as though their views are being heard and be able to successfully develop action plans to meet their goals. Importantly facilitators should not take part in the discussion, attempt to influence the outcome, offer their point of view or take control of the content. Their role is to provide leadership and help others assume responsibility. This article outlines the steps needed for effective facilitation. Read our article in the Education Section on Group Working for more information on group activities.
Effective facilitation requires the careful use of language and questioning to achieve the outcomes described above. This includes your body language, tone of voice, the use of silence and the type of questions employed. These are covered in our article on non-verbal communication. You will need to become adept at managing disagreement and sometimes even encourage it to prompt authentic conversation. You can read more about conflict resolution here. As a facilitator your role is to avoid offering opinions on the subject at hand and manage the discussion flow instead. These two domains are known as content and process respectively.
The subject being discussed and the task at hand. It takes most the attention of participants. The content is left to the participants.
- The subjects for discussion.
- The task.
- The problems being solved.
- The decisions being made.
- The goals.
The way in which content is discussed. It includes the style of interaction and group dynamics. The process is managed by the facilitator.
- The methods and procedures.
- How relations are maintained.
- The tools being used.
- The rules or norms set.
- The group dynamics.
- The climate.
There are several different ways you can successfully achieve management of the group process, but it mostly boils down to the language techniques you use and the types of questions you ask.
Four Language Techniques
Your role as a facilitator is to remain a neutral force and carefully manage the group process. Broadly speaking there are four language techniques you can employ to do this. They are paraphrasing, identifying participant feelings, clarifying insight and observing participant conduct. Each is discussed below.
Continuously describe in your own words what another person has said. This is useful for clarifying people’s opinions, dealing with potential conflict and showing participants that their opinions are being heard.
Specify and identify feelings by naming them (“I feel we’ve run out of energy”), using a metaphor (“I feel as if we’re facing a brick wall”) or using a figure of speech (“I feel like a fly on the wall”). Reveal your own feelings to encourage others to share their own.
Take the pulse of participants by describing what you perceive to be their inner state. This helps check if you understand what they are feeling, particularly those whose emotions may be preventing their participation. This encourages others to share opinions they might not previously have done.
Describe specific behaviours you have observed to show participants how their actions are being perceived. Do not make accusations or generalisations about them.
Five Types of Question
The types of question you use will influence the answers you get. If you ask the wrong questions, you’ll probably get the wrong answer, or at least not quite what you were hoping for. There are five major types of questions which are discussed below. From these, you can further delve into more specific question types which are covered in a later section.
Open and Closed Questions
These are two distinct types of question that lead to two very different types of answer. Open questions tend to stimulate thinking and lead to longer answers, while closed questions often require a one-word answer and will close off a discussion.
- Open questions are good for developing an open conversation, finding out more detail and discovering another person’s perspective on an issue
- Closed questions are good for testing your understanding of a point and concluding discussions through reaching a decision.
These can work in two directions. You can either begin with general questions before drilling down into more specific points; or you can begin with specific questions and slowly broaden them into more general points. Funnel questions are good for gaining interest or increasing the confidence of the person you are speaking with.
Probing questions can be used to provide additional information for clarification purposes, investigate whether there is proof of what has been said or ask for examples to help you understand a statement. They are good for ensuring the whole story has been understood and may be used to draw out information from participants.
These tend to be closed questions and will try to lead the respondent to your way of thinking. They can do this by using assumptions, adding personal appeal, providing select few choices and phrasing questions to provoke a certain response. They are good for getting the answer you want but will leave others feeling they don’t have a choice. Use them with care as they can be seen as manipulative and dishonest.
These are statements rather than questions. They are used to engage the listener and draw them into agreement rather than making them feel as though they are being told something. They are not often used by facilitators because they will influence content by getting people to agree with your point of view.
The Focused Conversation Method (The ORID Process)
The ORID process was developed by the Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs and is based upon four questions which successively build upon one another. The framework is based on the theory that individuals must take account of facts and deal with their emotions in order to undertake better analysis and decision making. You can read more about it in the book The Art of Focused Conservation.
The four steps of the focused conservation method are undertaken by everyone when reaching a decision, but individuals will place varying levels of emphasis onto different steps. The role of the facilitator is to offer guidance so that each step is equally assessed, and conclusions are not made without considering the full perspective. The four steps are described below.
Gather facts, data, numbers and statistics to set the context. This grounds participants and helps them later recognise that there are many different assumptions, interpretations and perspectives involved in shaping reality.
- What is the history of the situation?
- What facts do we know about the situation?
- When reviewing data or a presentation: What words, phrases, or pieces of data stand out?
- What are the deliverables or what are we trying to achieve?
- What resources do we have?
Elicit emotions and associations to surface personal reactions to the information. It allows participants to explore their feelings, emotions and personal connections. These responses are often our immediate feelings.
- What does this remind you of?
- How does this make you feel?
- What did you find new or refreshing?
- What surprised or delighted you?
- What feels most challenging or worries you?
Examine assumptions, values and implications to uncover deeper meanings. This step helps participants make sense of the situation and will prompt critical thinking and analysis.
- What have we learned so far?
- What does this mean for us?
- How might this affect our work?
- What more do we need to know or further explore?
- What insights have you unearthed?
- If we got a chance to do it again, what would we do differently?
- What are some of our strengths and weaknesses - how do they help or hinder us with this situation?
- What are the issues underlying the current challenge?
- What patterns did you see among similar events?
Develop options and determine priorities to drive actions. This step pulls together insights and is used to determine priorities for different options by examining the consequences of actions or inaction. It is a crucial step for decision making.
- What do we need to start, stop, or continue doing?
- How does this fit into our priorities?
- What is relatively easy to do? What is the low hanging fruit?
- What has to happen first, second, third?
- What skills or resources are we missing? How will we acquire those?
- What are the next steps? Who will do what by when?
Tips for First Time Facilitators
Facilitation is a skill that you can develop with practice and a little patience. If you are getting started as a facilitator, here are a few pointers.
Establish Group Norms
Discuss and establish the ground rules at the start of the session. Think about who gets to speak, how to manage conflict and discuss any confidentiality expectations.
Create a trusting environment so group members can equally contribute and share content. Remember, you are not supposed to be an expert in the content material.
Focus on Questions
Prepare and use questions which promote thoughtful insights. Your aim is to stimulate a genuine dialogue and help participants find their own answers.
Give quieter members the space to contribute at a time that is right for them. Be on the lookout for body language that might indicate they are about to talk. “Let’s hear from four different perspectives on this subject”
Ask questions that promote feelings of belonging and understanding within the group.
- “What do you hope to gain from discussion in this group”
- “What’s something you’re looking forward to right now?”
- “What’s something people should know about you that they don’t already?”
Make it Relevant
Help participants realise how the content is relevant to them.
- “How is this issue affecting you at work?”
- “What connection can you make with our conversation and making your work life easier?”
An Analytical Break Down of Question Types
It is no secret that the way in which you ask a question will determine the answer you get back. Just think of those early communication lessons you had back at medical school, or the way interviewers ask questions after a sports match. So, what exactly can you ask? The following section explores 14 different types of question and provides examples of how you might use them. These questions have been created by the University of Michigan.
- Exploratory Questions
- Open-Ended Questions
- Challenge Questions
- Relational Questions
- Cause and Effect Questions
- Extension Questions
- Hypothetical Questions
- Diagnostic Questions
- Priority Questions
- Process Questions
- Analytical Questions
- Summary Questions
- Action Questions
- Evaluative Questions
Probe basic knowledge:
- What do you think about ________?
- How does _________ make you feel?
- What bothers/concerns/confuses you the most about _____________?
- What are some ways we might respond to ________________?
Questions that don’t require a detailed or specific kind of response:
- What is your understanding of __________?
- What do you want to know about ____________?
- What is the first thing you think about in relation to _____________?
- What are some questions you have about ____________?
- State one image/scene/event/moment from your experience that relates to ___________?
Examine assumptions, conclusions, and interpretations:
- What can we infer/conclude from _______?
- Does _____ remind you of anything?
- What principle do you see operating here?
- What does this help you explain?
- How does this relate to other experiences or things you already knew?
Ask for comparisons of themes, ideas, or issues:
- Do you see a pattern here?
- How do you account for ______?
- What was significant about ______?
- What connections to you see?
- What does ________ suggest to you?
- Is there a connection between what you’ve just said and what ______ was saying earlier?
Cause and Effect Questions
Ask for causal relationships between ideas, actions, or events:
- How do you think _______ relates or causes _________?
- What are some consequences of ___________________?
- Where does ___________ lead?
- What are some pros and cons of _________________?
- What is likely to be the effect of _________________?
Expand the discussion:
- What do the rest of you think?
- How do others feel?
- What did you find noteworthy about this comment?
- How can we move forward?
- Can you give some specific examples of _________________?
- How would you put that another way?
Pose a change in the facts or issues:
- What if _________ were from a different _________, how would that change things?
- Would it make a difference if we were in a __________ society/culture?
- How might this dialogue be different if ____________?
- What might happen if we were to ____________?
- How might your life be different if ___________?
Probe motives or causes:
- What brings you to say that?
- What do you mean?
- What led you to that conclusion?
Seek to identify the most important issue:
- From all that we’ve talked about, what is the most important concept you see?
- Considering the different ideas in the room, what do you see as the most critical issue?
- What do you find yourself resonating with the most?
- If you had to pick just one topic to continue talking about, what would it be?
Elicits satisfaction/buy-in/interest levels:
- Is this where we should be going?
- How are people feeling about the direction of this dialogue?
- What perspectives are missing from this dialogue?
- Everyone has been ________ for a while, why?
- How would you summarize this dialogue so far?
- How might splitting into groups/pairs affect our discussion?
Seek to apply concepts or principles to new or different situations:
- What are the main arguments for _______________?
- What are the assumptions underlying ______________?
- What questions arise for you as you think about ______________?
- What implications does ___________ have? (for _____________?)
- Does this idea challenge or support what we’ve been talking about?
- How does this idea/contribution add to what has already been said?
Elicit syntheses, what themes or lessons have emerged:
- Where are we?
- If you had to pick two themes from this dialogue, what would they be?
- What did you learn?
- What benefits did we gain today?
- What remains unresolved? How can we better process this?
- Based on our dialogue, what will you be thinking about after you leave?
- Let me see if I understand what we’ve talked about so far… What have I missed?
- Ok, this is what I’ve heard so far… Does anyone have anything to correct or add?
Call for a conclusion or action:
- How can we use that information?
- What does this new information say about our own actions/lives?
- How can you adapt this information to make it applicable to you?
- How will you do things differently as a result of this meeting?
- What are our next steps?
- What kind of support do we need as we move forward?
- How does this dialogue fit into our bigger plans?
Gauge emotions, anxiety levels, what is going well or not:
- Is there anything else you would like to talk about?
- How are you feeling about this now?
- What was a high point for you? A low point?
- Where were you engaged? Disengaged?
- What excited you? Disappointed you?