When you ask a question you want the answer, don’t you*? Of course, otherwise you wouldn’t have bothered to ask the question in the first place. But it’s not always as simple as that…..
It is true that when we ask questions we are usually looking to obtain information about something, “what time does the workshop start?” might be a good example. We don’t know something so we ask to find out, simple. But there are many other reasons we ask questions and they serve a variety of purposes besides just providing information.
We may be hiding an instruction in a question “do you want to put the kettle on?” actually means – I’d like you to put the kettle on! We might ask a question to make out feelings known about something “Is it my turn to do the photocopying again?”. Or perhaps to help us feel a certain way. The “does this look okay?” type question may actually be a request for validation rather than information, but you do want a reply. And of course there are rhetorical questions you might ask where you don’t really expect information, or even a reply. They are often used to make a point, or even to answer another question. “What does he think he looks like?” or “Who cares?” might be some good examples.
We use a plethora of different questions types to frame our conversations and give them extra meaning. Most of the time we do this without thinking about it and it’s part of our social use of language; the way we use language to communicate. In this sense our questions are more about the process of asking a question, than the actual question itself.
Questions can often lead to discussions, whether intended or not. Sometimes when we need the information we need to have a discussion to get to it – after all not all questions are simple and you may need more than one. A back and forth exchange of question and answers could be the mechanism for getting what you need. Sometimes it is purely about the conversation itself and questions are a good way to get a conversation going. We often do this when we are trying to engage with someone and get their attention. Of course, we need to make sure that we do listen to the answers otherwise the discussion will be rather short lived!
In the workshops I do, questions are often designed to start conversations, to keep discussions going and to generate more information. I use them to:
- Engage people and break the ice
- Maintain engagement and keep conversations flowing
- Guide conversations and help them move in a particular direction
- Help the group to solve problems
- Elicit new ideas and to stimulate thought
- Tease out information that people often don’t realise they have
- Debate a situation or particular topic
- Help manage group dynamics
And a whole lot more.
They are an important facilitation technique. Sometimes I plan these ahead and may use a particular method, such as the ICA’s Focused Conversation approach. Sometimes I plan one or two questions and bring in others as the workshop progresses. Much of the time it is about drawing on a bank of tried and tested question types as and when they are necessary. And sometimes, I rely on my flexibility and experience as a facilitator and bring them in when I need them with out the pre-planning.
I love a good question. It’s not always because I need information. But it is usually because I want a reply and I most definitely love a good conversation. So, my opening question for you is:
How do YOU use questions?
*Incidentally, for the grammar geeks amongst you, this particular question is known as a “tag” question.
If you would like me to work with you and bring my useful questions along, then please give me a call!