A Good Question!

Crafting a question for a gathering to explore isn’t as simple as it might sound.

I strive to find a question (or two) that will help participants explore the depth of their topic, a question that will get at the collective wisdom of the gathering, a question that challenges people to think differently. Ideally, I am able to work with a planning group to come up with a question that will do just that.

The easy part is to make sure the question is open-ended, meaning it invites more than “yes” or “no” response. The goal is to elicit a thoughtful response that delves beyond the obvious.

The question also needs to be genuine–something that is truly intended to unveil new answers. If everyone who is part of the conversation is offering the same answer, then the question is not doing its job of spurring people to go deeper.

A good question is one that engages everyone. It does not look answers about facts and statistics that only a few might be privy to. A good question often engages a person’s values, hopes or ideals; these are questions that matters to the participants. A good question is also one that creates some tension or dissonance that causes people to grapple with the answers.

Every question is based on assumptions of what the focus needs to be. Working with a group to collectively develop a question helps to unveil possible assumptions embedded in a question. But sometimes it is only through subsequent conversation that the limits of a question become apparent.

In a book about a wonderful facilitation approach called the World Cafe, one person shared a story about a company they worked with. This corporation was engaging its people in discussions about how they could be the best in the world. However, when one employee’s comment prompted them to ask how they could become the best for the world, engagement in the discussions jumped. The first question was based on the assumption of competition; the secondĀ  was based on an assumption of contribution. The second mattered much more to the people involved in the discussions.

Questions that evoke an exploration of possibility over problem-solving tend to also create more energy and momentum. Instead of focusing a question on how you can stop or prevent something, it often pays to spin it around so it focuses on what you want to see. For example, exploring a question that focuses on what kind of workplace/community/world you want to see will help you identify the direction you want to move towards, instead of away from.

And questions can also be about questions. One that I’d like to try out in the right forum for is: “What questions are we not asking that, if we did ask, might make our situation better?”



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