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designing powerful questions

As a facilitator, questions are one of the tools of my trade. Using the same questions every time creates boredom, dullness, and decreases creativity. I work to create effective questions in the moment. And, one of the questions I am asked in return is, “How do you create good questions?” The World Cafe process suggests that there are three dimensions to creating effective questions:

  1. Scope or scale of the questions
  2. Assumptions in the questions
  3. Construction of the questions

Scope starts with clarity of purpose and intention. Begin by asking yourself what is the purpose and intention of the interaction. Scope should set a context, create a boundary (scale), and be relevant. Without scope, people are overwhelmed, shutting down the opportunity for conversation. For example: How can we cut our budget? or How can we create world peace? are questions with a broad context and no boundaries. Rephrase with scope in mind: What are the opportunities we have in the next week, month, and year stop doing things that no longer serve our clients and start doing something new? How do you create peaceful time for reflection for yourself and your work group within your meeting process?

Assumption starts with understanding of objective and audience. Since people respond to the assumptions made in the question, ask yourself what outcomes are desired and who will be part of the conversation. Assumptions should provoke inspiration and forward movement toward the purpose and intention. Notice the different assumptions in these questions: “What did you learn from our project planning experience?” compared to “What are you learning now from our project planning experience that relates to the current project?” The assumption is that learning is continually happening and has current application.

Construction uses language and shaping. The word chosen to open the question exists on a continuum from less to more powerful.  The less powerful questions can be answered with a “yes” or “no.”  The next level questions begin with “when” or “who,” the next with “how” or “what. ” “Why” questions stand at the top of the continuum. They are special because “why” questions can either provoke defensiveness and reenforce beliefs or they can evoke curiosity and imagination.

Once the opening word is chosen, use active language to shape the direction. The example above applies where past tense “did you learn” is replaced with “are you learning now.” Active language can invite change, innovation, or imagination: Based on our conversation, what change will you make this week in how you structure meeting processes? What are you thinking or feeling now based on our conversation? What are your current concerns about this subject?

Powerful, effective questions increase the value of our conversations through focus on purpose, intent, relevance, and action. Participants engage and connect. Powerful questions can change the thought patterns of individuals and teams, moving beyond business as usual.

What strategies do you use to create effective questions? Do you have a “root” word or words that you use when building effective questions?

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