Asking Good Questions

Good questions and good listening drive the important conversations we have in our community.

Moderators need and use good questions to help members before, during and after our in-person meetings. There are three main types of questions:

  • Open Ended Questions: The Gold Standard
  • Probing Questions: Getting Clarification and Specifics
  • Visual Questions: Kick Off or Redirect

We ask questions to:

  • Help members process their thoughts, identify issues, and solve problems (their own or others) as they do it
  • Create discussion and help foster relationships
  • Encourage members to contribute and trust the environment and their value to the group.

Open-ended Questions: The Gold Standard

Open-ended questions encourage the use of analysis, deduction, interpretation, generalization.

Open questions are very valuable to moderating—as long as they are not too open. Don’t confuse an open question with one that is merely vague.

Examples: Open Ended Questions usually start with “How” and “Why” and sometimes “What.”

  • How did you come up with that idea?
  • How did you build that?
  • How did you decide on those elements?
  • How does this effect ________?
  • Why did you take that approach?
  • Why is this important now?
  • Why is this a concern?
  • Why did ________ change?
  • What was the original objective? What problem is the company trying to solve?

In contrast, closed questions typically look for binary agreement/disagreement, yes or no answers, or simple responses (questions that they already know the answers to).

Remembering to use open-ended questions is largely a matter of practice, and with attention this can become second nature. In the days leading up to meeting, try to focus on using the technique more both at work and in your daily life, so that you begin to develop a type of “muscle memory.”

You will stimulate conversation with open-ended questions. While this may be obvious, if you have a very content-heavy agenda, or a topic with one very knowledgeable participant, it can be easy to veer off course into a presentation instead of a discussion.

Probing Questions: Getting Clarification and Specifics

Probing questions are focused on navigating the member toward specificity.

While you don’t want to grill anyone (or make the more reticent participants uncomfortable) asking questions to help a participant’s contribution become clearer or asking for examples can help to deepen the conversation.

Don’t allow them to just scratch the surface or speak in generic terms. This helps both the speaker and the listeners to process the ideas. Probe without interrogating.

Instead of, “What do you think about this topic?” ask something more like:

  • What’s the one implication of this [new approach/legislative change, whatever] that you’re most excited about?
  • What is the one aspect you’re most concerned about?
  • How compelling is this [argument, solution] for your business counterparts or management? (to gain deeper insight and encourage them to view the issue from other vantage points).

And, you can follow up on advice or guidance offered by asking for illustrative examples, such as:

  • Can you elaborate on that idea?
  • Can you give us an example (of how that might work, of what you would like to see, of what you have experienced, etc.)?
  • Can you be a little more specific? What did you mean when you said. . .?

Try to get to the core underlying issues:

  • How do you feel about this?
  • What brings you to that opinion?

Visual Questions: Kick Off or Redirect

As a variation on the open-ended question, try asking “visual” questions—questions that cause the participants to form mental visualizations of the answer; that enable them to “see” their response. For example:

  • “Imagine…”
  • “Consider…”
  • “Think about…”
  • “If…”
  • “What would you need in order to…”
  • Lay the groundwork for a conversation by saying, “Think about the last time you…”

Sometimes getting the group started is the hardest part. And, if the group is stuck (but not finished), this technique is a good way to generate some thinking. Consider planning a “visual question” for very agenda item.

How to Ask Good Questions

Be curious. Listen.

  • Look for themes to summarize, descriptions or comments to reflect and clarify.
  • Listen for offers to probe and get more details.
  • Help the member to process what’s on their mind by restating or framing what you heard so they can react to it.

Do homework.

  • Prepare for 1:1 calls with the members or a small groups by looking into the members’ background and what’s going on in their company.
  • Understand recent discussions or different points of view around the latest trends on topics discussed.
  • Use this information to ask both the informed and the naive questions. Both may help someone see a different side of a topic.

Balance the timing.

  • Too many questions may get in the way – and may make the conversation more about informing you instead of helping someone to process or articulate a point.
  • Ask when someone seems stuck or starts to repeat themselves or when it’s time to encourage other members’ contributions.

Create Space for Clarifying Questions

Encouraging participant questions can generate some of the most informed and thought provoking discussions.

After a challenge, topic or advice is presented, we should allow time for members to ask clarifying questions – Moderators can prompt these by asking:

  • Do you have any questions for each other?
  • Did anyone hear anything they’d like to explore a little more?
  • Can someone ask a question about something we’ve missed?
  • How could you explain this to someone who is completely unfamiliar with the subject? Can someone boil this down to very simple terms?

Drawing Out Quiet Members

Managing the contributions of the participants is a bit like the ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ situation; some talk too much, some too little…. Managing these two extremes is critical to the success of the meeting—for all concerned.

  • Cite the members experience to draw out their perspective: “Joe, you worked in a start-up that was acquired. Can you tell us…”  If you know ahead of time who may tend to be withdrawn, you can have some questions/topics in your back pocket.
  • If you can see that someone is trying to participate but not quite managing to get there use a straight-forward approach: “Jane, we haven’t heard from you on this…”
  • Try polling the group (and as they respond, selectively asking more follow-up questions of those who have been quiet).

Keep in mind that you are inviting the person to speak. You want them to feel welcome to speak, and to make it easy for them. If they decline, be gracious and non-judgmental.

A Participant is Not Aligned

If you are getting the sense that everyone is not agreement – or even that one person disagrees with conclusions that have been offered by the group members – try to explore it and not just let it go:

  • How does what we’re describing conflict with your experience?
  • Talk about your concerns with this.
  • I am sensing you have a different perspective, can you tell us about it?
  • How can this idea be further clarified?
  • I’d like to hear your thoughts on this?
  • What isn’t viable about this approach? 

The Group is Stuck

If the discussion is losing steam or going in circles (and you really need to intercede or offer a suggestion), Moderators can use questions to bring it to a close, for example:

  • Can I make a suggestion?
  • Is it possible that…?
  • Would it make sense if…?
  • Am I correct in thinking…?
  • Would it be OK if I jump in here?
  • Does anybody think…?

Then follow up with:

  • A summary to see if they are OK with the current conclusions or if more is needed
  • A suggestion for jump-starting or redirecting the discussion, such as a visualization (see above section “Visual Questions”)
  • A recommendation of 1:1 or small group pairs to continue the conversation over lunch, dinner or phone after the meetings

Wrapping Up a Discussion

Ask the speaker:

  • Is there anything we didn’t get to on this topic?
  • Did we cover everything you were hoping we’d talk about?

Ask the group:

  • Do you have any questions for each other?

Varying Your Questions

  • Pose “what if” scenarios to help trigger creative thinking and problem-solving.
  • Alternate between “thinking” questions and “feeling” questions.
  • Ask them to describe how their internal clients or stakeholders might view the topic.
  • Try using a modified brainstorming approach to kick off a topic, particularly if it is a big topic and you may need to triage the conversation sub-topics. Let the group decide how to prioritize and where to start.
  • Use inversion to get members to think differently – if the goal is to improve the experience of using XYZ, ask the group to brainstorm all the things that would make using XYZ a horrible experience.