The Importance of Asking the Right Question
Questions serve many purposes, but for the sake of this post I focus on asking questions with the goal of understanding a situation and the needs and wants of the people within it.
For the purpose of a concrete example, let’s say we’re tasked with understanding people’s thoughts on the development of a new park. Whether meeting in person, in small groups or a large public meeting… the right questions are critical. (It is also critical to understand HOW to ask those questions, but that delves into facilitation and won’t be covered in this post. An example of that is the difference between verbally asking questions of a large group with direct verbal responses, versus asking people to write their responses down on cards. Those two methods can result in drastically different results from a group session.)
So… let’s start with the fact that an answer is only as good as the question that inspired it.
If as designers we are to be good listeners, we need to understand how to ask the right questions.
Remember that your goal is to try to understand everyone around you, and that you are irrelevant except as a facilitator. A friend once told me that when she is running a public meeting, her goal is to leave that meeting knowing as much as possible about the attendees… but having attendees know as little as possible about her. The meeting has absolutely nothing to do with her, so her opinions, ideas and frames of reference shouldn’t taint the process.
We speak only to ask questions ad seek clarification.
Know Your Purpose
- Why do we want to ask questions?
- Understanding the situation: The most common reason to reach out to people is to understand a project’s fundamentals. What are the opportunities and constraints? What are the strengths and weaknesses? Problems to be solved? Let’s open it up to understand the situation.
- Gain Support: When you engage with people, they will hopefully gain some ownership over the process. This can be used for the powers of good, the powers of evil or somewhere in-between. Within the context of wanting to genuinely consult people, we’ll discount autocratic, ritual or placatory reasons for a planning process (Boothroyd, 1986). For our purposes, gaining support is an outgrowth of a good planning process.
- The Task at Hand: You will need to know enough about what you are doing in order to develop your questions. You will likely learn and refine your questions by interacting with your client or stakeholders. I find that questions change after you ask them a few times. They refine themselves as you discover the unintentional consequences of their wording.
- Who will we be questioning? Know your target audience. You may just be asking your clients questions. You might be consulting a whole community.
- Their level of knowledge: Be careful about the shortcuts that you might take. Your client might be the only person that you question, and might have worked with you before, but don’t assume that your “shared language” is in the best interest of getting good answers. Don’t skip levels within a process if you can avoid it. When you do a full process, you might find that you’re asking the right questions on the wrong project (see Trying to Avoid Work). The ideal project starts with no assumptions.
- Their level of communication: Cultures have communication shortcuts. We need to be very careful about these, as they are assumptions (see bullet above). Working in a cross-cultural context is an ideal way to understand the fundamentals of communication. Shortcuts are not necessary, and they are sometimes not fair. If we approached all processes with the tools developed for the challenges of cross-cultural communication, I believe that it would clarify communication. A little extra time in the beginning usually saves more time later.
Plan Your Question
There are good resources on line for more specifics or guidance than I give below. Search for “asking a good question”.
- Context: Provide information and context to allow people to develop answers, but avoid anything that would seek to shape their answer (intentionally or unintentionally). This can be SUPER hard for us designers where we are taught to try to convince people that our ideas are the right ones for them.
- One Question at a time: Ask one question at a time, and make sure it is simple and clear.
- Don’t Influence! Don’t influence people’s answers by the context that you provide, or the questions that you ask.
- Neutral Wording & Avoiding Leading Questions: Simplify your question as much as possible. No adjectives or adverbs. Use words like ‘describe’. Don’t influence the outcome.
- Open ended vs. specific:
- Open ended questions allow for brainstorming. This is needed to allow freedom of thought and to find the unexpected.
- Specific questions allow clarification and refinement. This is needed when narrowing down ideas or prioritizing.
- Only limit answers when appropriate:
- Either/Or: There will be times where one option or another is a good question, but remember that asking a question this way limits the options to those you are listing.
- Yes/No: A yes or no answer can be very useful, but they have the same use/constraints as either/or.:
- The power of why. The first question will likely not get to any root cause. When you have an important question developed, a good exercise is to ask why five times and encourage people to drill down to truly understand something. Intentionally asking (and answering) “why?” encourages people to stop and think (and perhaps discuss) what is behind their answers.
- Plan it from start to finish: You will use different questions and different tools as your group gathers, distills and synthesizes information. You should have this whole process planned out and optimized. Then, you also need to be prepared with a Plan B and Plan C… and be able to adapt and clarify.
Adapt and Clarify
- Be a Flexible Expert Facilitator: I started this post with saying that HOW the questions are asked wouldn’t really be touched upon as it delves into facilitation. You will need to have a variety of tools and techniques at your disposal as it is YOUR job to understand how best to help each and every person find the right way to answer your question and/or contribute to your session. This will only come with experience. Skillful facilitators are the ultimate communicator in their knowledge of learning styles, psychology, group dynamics, technology, etc…
- You Can’t Give Up: No matter how strange someone is, they will likely have something valuable to provide to your process. It is YOUR role to help them.
- Facilitation as a Martial Art: Jujitsu involves receiving energy and redirecting it. Your role is to redirect whatever energy is aimed at you to find the place not only where it belongs, and where it ideally benefits the process. If this energy involves anger/frustration/confusion, it is likely that at their root there might be a useful piece of information. When you discover it, you might be able to re-purpose it for the betterment of your project… and result in someone that feels like they have been heard.
A Listening Framework
- Listen! Listening is hard until you practice it. We want so hard to contribute and identify with people, but when we do so we wind up risking changing results.
- Be a good interviewer. This is hard! Your goal is to allow someone to be themselves, and to find the right way to speak and be heard. A good interviewer moves beyond the surface and teases out real information.
- Respect their time. Always set up meetings with a specific timeline, and respect it. If you get close to the end, check in to see if they value using more time or not. (See this post with relevant aspects about Running a Good Meeting.)
- Talk as little as possible. Your talking should only relate to helping other people talk to you. Minimize sharing your own stories, except where they are as neutral as possible and might help someone be comfortable with sharing. Every conversation is different. If you find yourself talking more than you’d like, consider that speaking might not be the best way to reach the person or group you are with. That’s where other facilitation/interaction techniques might be useful to reach the information you need (ex. written exercises or online surveys)
We Just Want to Be Heard!
Whether recently, or since the dawn of time… humans just aren’t good at listening to one another. This means that we often don’t feel like we’ve actually been heard. You have the power to listen to people, and actually hear them. Not only hear them, but shown them that they have been heard.
Do not underestimate the power of being heard.