Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ask the right questions

Questions are your most powerful tool for facilitation.
Many people are afraid to ask questions, because they feel it exposes uncertainty or weakness. But that is not true if you ask the right questions.
The right questions can reveal problems, uncover implicit knowledge, foster mutual understanding and create learning - just to name a few benefits.

Asking the right questions is an art. With one question, you can start, end, derail or destroy a discussion. It's completely up to you to pick the right question. But you can ask many questions:
  • Open questions: For example, "What do you think we should do?" - you spark discussions with these. Use them to get others to talk.
  • Closed questions: For example, "Do we all agree to do it like this?" - you end discussions with these. Use them to end topics or meetings.
  • Probing questions: For example, when a developer proposed a specific approach to a problem, you may ask "What will happen if step 3 doesn't work out?" Use these to create deeper thoughts on specific matters.
  • Counter questions: For example, when someone asks you: "Can you arrange an XXL TV for our CI build monitor?" - you may want to ask "What will you be seeing on this monitor?" to get developers to reflect on their expectations or gain further insight.
  • Power questions: For example, you may ask "Why are we getting so many customer complaints?" - to provoke deeper thoughts on one specific topic without limiting options.
  • Weak questions: To give a negative example, by asking, "Can't we just add more tests?" - you will do the following: Put your opinion above others' expertise, pre-empt a solution that may not even help and end the stream of thought. At worst, you expose a level of ignorance that will cause others to not take you seriously any more.

What you can do

You, too, can learn to ask the right questions.
For your next meeting, prepare one question which fits into that meeting. It may be that you already know the answer for yourself, but you want to check with the team.
Make sure it's a power question and make sure it's formulated as an open question.
Be prepared to add some probing follow-up questions.

Find the right setting to ask your question and wait for the discussion to ensue.

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