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Asking questions with intention


If community groups are to find good answers, it is important they ask the right questions. The right question can propel a group forward in a positive way while the wrong one can pull them backward.

That's why asking questions is a leadership skill worth studying. Facilitators and informed group participants should be ready to ask the right question at the right time. "Leaders need to use purposeful, thought-provoking questions in skillful and timely ways," says leadership and civic engagement educator Jody Horntvedt. "That's why we teach questioning skills in our leadership education classes."

Focusing your questions

Knowing what type of question to ask — and when — may feel tricky at first. Horntvedt suggests a simple first step: decide what it is your question needs to accomplish. For example, you may need to ask a question that helps group members focus the conversation. If you're unsure what the purpose of your question should be, take a step back and consider the overall goal of the meeting. "Step outside the conversation and pay attention to what's going on," advises Horntvedt. "Why does it feel like you're stuck? Is it because someone doesn't understand what's going on? Or because someone doesn't feel comfortable sharing what they're thinking?" In either of these situations, the right question can make a difference. She offers an analogy: "Think of your question as a lever that pries the lid off a can. What do you need to pry loose so you can take the next step?"

Asking questions that empower

Leadership and civic engagement educator Catherine Rasmussen says the type of question you ask can give group members influence within a conversation —or take it away. "For example, questions like 'How do you feel about the progress of this project?' or 'From your perspective, what are the key things you think we need to do?' empower group members," she explains. "On the other hand, questions such as, 'Why do you think that way?' or 'Don't you agree we should do this?' tend to take away a person's power and imply they should simply go along with what is being said."

Rasmussen explains it's also important to consider whether groups need to broaden their number of ideas or considerations, or whether it's time to hone in on a solution. Questions can result in divergent or convergent thinking. "Divergent thinking calls for questions that stimulate brainstorming or creative thinking," she says. "In those situations, you want to ask a question such as 'What actions do we need to take to accomplish this project?' or 'What are all the questions that we have about this topic?' If the group needs to prioritize or make a decision, on the other hand, you need to ask a question that narrows or converges their thinking." Rasmussen explains those questions may include ones like "What should be our first three steps?" or "Which of these values that we identified are the most important for making our decision?"

It is also important to consider whether or not your question should be neutral. "A question can suggest that action has to be taken," Rasmussen says. "For example, you might ask, 'What needs to be changed the next time we implement this program?' You are implying that something has to happen. However, if the situation does not require action to be taken, the question should indicate neutrality. I recommend adding the two little words, 'What, if anything, needs to be changed?'"

Utilizing your questioning toolkit

Horntvedt suggests leaders see their questions as a toolkit for working in groups and advises having a set of pre-planned ones at your disposal. Then, during the actual meeting, you can refer to them as necessary. Horntvedt even suggests writing your questions down on index cards as a helpful reminder.

Rasmussen recommends a book entitled The Art of Focused Conversation by R. Brian Stanfield1. This resource provides examples of questions that help move groups forward and come to a decision. The focused conversation uses questions at four levels:

  1. The objective level – questions about data, facts, and reality
  2. The reflective level – questions about personal reactions to the data
  3. The interpretive level – questions to draw out meaning, values, and implications
  4. The decisional level – questions to bring the conversation to a close and enable the group to decide on action

Creating positive outcomes

Learning to ask the right question at the right time can significantly enhance the success of community meetings—for everyone involved. "You can ask a question whether you're the participant or the leader," Horntvedt says. "Questions keep the flow going and move people forward."

Rasmussen explains another positive outcome of good questioning skills is the ability to clarify and build consensus. "Questions create ownership of the outcome within the group," she says. "They tap everyone's knowledge and establish the group's shared values, which is really critical."

Rasmussen shares an example of facilitating a meeting to address a controversy among several interest groups on the development of a proposed recreational area complex. "I asked each group to answer the following two questions: 'What about this proposed project appeals to you?' and 'How might this proposed project create problems for you?' After hearing the different viewpoints and perspectives, I asked a third question: 'What is the one thing that you would need in order to support this project moving forward?' Once each group shared what they needed, they could see how the dots connected and what they could do to work together."

There is indeed power in asking the right question. Before your next conversation or meeting, take time to consider how your questions can make a difference. The resources below may help you ask the right question at the right time.

1 Stanfield, B. (2000). The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Ways to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Author: Elyse Paxton

Reviewed in 2022

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