10 ways to reframe questions to create a space for conversation

Fret the small stuff. Create an inclusive, equality based, and productive environment for conversation! The questions in facilitation are important as they are at the core of our practice. They initiate conversations and propel participants towards a decision—and once asked, carry positive and negative repercussions—visible and hidden.

Dialogue, collaborative sessions, and facilitated workshops often begin with a central question in which an answer is generated from the group thinking together. Well-crafted inquiry questions may take hours of planning, revision and fine tuning. We often focus our energies on perfecting the big, the grandiose, the limelight questions. However, while an inordinate amount of time may be spent with these important questions, we mustn’t forget the other, seemingly innocuous questions for they too have impact on group conversations, thinking together and productivity.

Let’s look at an example; something that occurs time and time again in meetings, workshops, classrooms or anywhere a person leads a group through a set of activities. The group facilitator, or leader, provides instructions to the group and once finished, asks the group, “Do you understand the tasks for this activity?” Often the group mumbles their “ok’s” and begins work. In fact, this is normally what happens. Yet, something else is at play in this scenario. Dorothy Strachan argues that this type of question inverts responsibility on to the group rather than the facilitator. It is the facilitator’s—not the group’s— responsibility to design tasks and provide clear instruction. How can we, as facilitators, ask questions without disabling the collaborative and inquiry based space we have created? It really is the little things that make the difference.

As facilitators, we frequently ask these questions, yet, need to intentionally construct them to support, not destruct, the great work being generated by the group. Framing questions in a destructive manner may: make the participants defensive, alienate members of a group, stall or hinder conversation, fail to be beacons for free enquiry, make people feel unable or unwilling to answer or speak up, feel that any answer they generate is negative, stop honest reflection and thoughtful responses. Remember. Fret the small stuff. Every question is important.

Here are 10 examples of how to reframe certain questions for a more inclusive, equality based, and productive environment. Apply these to your next facilitation session or meeting. These examples are from Dorothy Strachan’s book Making Questions Work. When I read the book it made me reflect on my practice and initiated this blog post. I had to share her important ideas. When you see a great idea share it with the world.

10 ways to reframe specific, frequently used questions*:

  1. Instead of asking, Do you understand the question? Do you understand the task? Try asking, Did I explain the task clearly? Did the directions I provided make sense?, The responsibility for making the questions and tasks clear then rests with the facilitator. And, you could ask an open-ended question, What do you need from me to help you better understand this task?
  2. Instead of asking, Why are you feeling upset? Try saying, How do you feel when you think about this topic? [What part of this topic excites you? Frustrates you?]. Then the respondent doesn’t feel defensive through this line of questioning and the group can work together to solve a problem.
  3. Instead of asking, We’re almost finished don’t you think? try asking, What’s your sense of where we are in terms of the whole project? so that, the questions does not imply that disagreement must be wrong.
  4. Instead of asking, Why did you stop there instead of finishing the task?, replace with What was happening for you when you stopped there?
  5. Instead of asking, Do you agree or disagree? Try asking, What does that sound like to you? Does this seem like a sensible approach? Why? Why not? Avoid forcing the respondent into an either or
  6. Instead of asking, How can we avoid taking this route to solve this problem? Try asking, What other ways can you think of to solve this problem? What are all our options here? so that, an opposing view is not seen as negative.
  7. Instead of asking, why did your team get such a bad review on that project? Try asking What were the key factors that influenced how that project turned out? Invite an honest, reflective response rather than a defensive rationalization.
  8. Instead of asking, Define the word strategic for the purposes of this conversation, try asking, How are you using the word strategic in this discussion? Help the participant feel less pressure to respond with a supposed right answer.
  9. Instead of asking, Which of these objectives is the most important? Try asking, What is one question you want answered by the end of this session? This focuses the question on participants’ specific learning needs; you acknowledge participants questions as important.
  10. Instead of asking, What sort of data do you have to back up your opinion? Try asking, Tell me more? So that you are not putting the respondent in a defensive, weaker position.

*These examples are from Dorothy Strachan’s excellent book, Making Questions Work. Dorothy Strachan. Making Questions Work. (2007), 27–30.

Works cited:

Citation: Strachan, Dorothy. Making Questions Work. (San Francisco, Jossey Bass), 2007.

Blog co-written by Chris Pedersen and Barb Pedersen.



10 ways to reframe questions to create a space for conversation
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One thought on “10 ways to reframe questions to create a space for conversation

  • April 7, 2018 at 4:41 pm

    How are you using…? is powerful question. I have found it to open up the discussion in a group and start creating a common ground.

    thank you for writing this blog post.

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