Asking questions in workshops

ABCD workshopAn important skill in facilitating experiential workshops is asking questions. There are many different ways of asking questions, but I think there are four that show up frequently in workshops:

  1. Questions to find out what happened – like the police might ask.
  2. Questions to test knowledge or to find out what people know – like a teacher might ask.
  3. Questions where you are looking for the right answer –  like “Is it OK to hit your kids?”
  4. Questions asked out of curiosity to explore people’s experiences, beliefs, motivations etc.

In my experience, the last type of questions are most useful when facilitating experiential workshops. In these types of workshops we are wanting people to think for themselves and to learn from their experiences. These workshops often explore issues where there are no hard and fast rules.

If we take conflict resolution for example, there are certain skills, attitudes and approaches that are likely to help, but there is no guarantee that any one of these will work. What might work for one person, might not work for another person. People thus need to work out what will work for them in a variety of situations.

By being curious and asking questions that are non-judgemental and very open, we encourage people to develop their own awareness and reflective skills.

By asking questions based on curiosity we also help create an environment conducive to honesty and openness. Before I suggested that the questions “Is it OK to hit your kids?” assumes a correct answer. I think it actually depends on how you ask the question. We can ask the question in a way that is expecting people to say “no it is not”. We can, however, also ask it in a way that really allows people to have their own opinions and encourages honesty. If we have set up the workshop well, participants will know that we aren’t coming in with all the answers and that we respect their opinions and experiences. We can then ask some genuine questions, making sure that our tone is non-judgemental and curious, along the lines of “I’m wondering if you think it is ever OK to hit our kids?” “What limits should there be to hitting our kids?”  “How else can we set limits for our kids?”

In order to be non-judgemental it sometimes feels like we need to ignore our own values. When I am in that situation, what I find helps is to set my values temporarily aside. I don’t ignore them, I just suspend them for a while and try to see things from the other person’s view point.

Occasionally I have found myself in an argument with somebody in a workshop – that is soooo not helpful. By getting into an argument it can often reinforce people’s attitudes or opinions, because they are presenting them forcefully. It would be much more helpful to ask questions, particularly ones that encourage them to reflect on exceptions to their attitudes. (Fran Peavey has some interesting material on strategic questioning.)

I remember once being in a workshop on running groups for young people and the presenter said that they ask questions by saying something along the lines of “What do you think would happen if you get into a fight (pause) Bill?” They said by having the pause it makes everybody in the room think – “if they pick me what will I say?” I really don’t like this approach. It places the facilitator in a real position of power-over, it doesn’t encourage open discussion and I suspect it encourages people to give the answers they think we want to hear.

By being genuinely curious we can assist participants to explore a variety of issues, in a way that is respectful and encourages movement. What questions do you find helpful?

If you liked this post you might want to subscribe to the blog (top right-hand corner of the blog),  and you might like to look at:

  1. The power of questions
  2. Ethics and community engagement
  3. Possibilities in online learning
  4. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  5. What is Appreciative Inquiry

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Working with communities and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Asking questions in workshops

  1. Reblogged this on Sustaining Community Engagement and commented:

    From the vaults (4 May 2012): I still use these questions with students and it leads to some interesting discussion through Blackboard.


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