Would you like to make your guided tours more interactive? But know you need to up your game when using questions? In this post we’re going to focus on 9 common mistakes to avoid when asking questions.

Firstly, I recommend that you read last week’s post on ‘How to Ask Brilliant Questions that Get Results‘. This will help simplify the process of asking BRILLIANT QUESTIONS and make sure that all your questions are followed up with BRILLIANT RESPONSES.

Then, make sure you avoid these 9 common traps when asking questions!

1. ASKING MORE THAN ONE QUESTION AT A TIME

It sounds obvious but how many times have you thought you were asking one question but it ended up asking in many different ways? I often hear a question morph into several other questions by the end of the very long sentence. Sometimes we ramble on trying to explain the question we’re asking in many different ways in an attempt to help the group understand what you are asking. However, by the time you’ve finished spelling out the question(s), the group are confused and not sure what or how to answer and the conversational flow has been lost.

The first step is to think before you talk. Figure about what you want to say before you start talking. Ask the question and then stop. Allow thinking time (see below!). See what responses come up. You can then re-phrase if necessary if you get zero responses.

Keep it clear and simple – one question at a time! it is OK to be brief.

2. ASKING QUESTIONS THAT ARE TOO COMPLEX OR TOO SIMPLISTIC – NOT PITCHING AT THE RIGHT LEVEL

Tailor your questions to the level of the group. Use questions at the start and throughout to assess the group’s existing knowledge and understanding of a subject or theme. Adjust the level accordingly. If you have a group with varying levels, try to maintain a middle ground whilst aiming one or two questions at a higher and a lower level.

3. ASKING LEADING QUESTIONS

Leading questions are ones that (subtly) prompt or suggest a certain answer: the one that you, the facilitator, guide or educator (knowingly or unknowingly) wants. e.g “How would you describe this painting: depressing?’ ‘Do you think that Rembrandt looks remorseful in this painting because of his difficult life?’. Your questions should be open-ended and invite a variety of responses.

4. ASKING WHY QUESTIONS

‘Why’ questions can make people clam up because they can appear challenging and direct. When you ask a question such ‘Why do you think that?’ you are asking the participant to defend and justify his or her thoughts or point of view. You can easily replace the word ‘why’ with ‘what instead. Try saying ‘What do you see that makes you say that?’ or ‘What factors led you to those thoughts?’

5. ASKING THE SAME TYPE OF QUESTIONS

Repetition means predictability which often causes people to switch off. If you ask ‘What’s going on in this picture?’ at as you arrive to every artwork on your museum tour, is too predictable for my tastes (sorry, VTS fans…). Some people might like knowing what’s coming next but others will just switch off. It reminds me of a German translation class I had at university. The teacher went around the room every lesson in a clockwise fashion asking you to translate the next sentence. So, you could just work out which sentence was yours and then switch off for the rest of the class. Predictable = dull in my book, I prefer to add a mix of questions. Even if I do observation at every stop or art work, I will change up the questions I ask and the way we work together (as a large group, small groups or pair-share, written, drawing or spoken).

Similarly, asking ‘Any questions?’ at the end of your pre-prepared script at every stop will not win you 5 star reviews. It does not make you interactive or engaging. Go back to our blog on asking brilliant questions and remember to use a variety of questions and to structure them (as we talked about here) from simple observation and describing through to more complex questions as you progress.

6. NOT ALLOWING THINKING-TIME

Ask the question and then stop. WAIT. I so often hear the guide or educator go in with a follow-up question, before the group have even had a chance to properly look at the object or think about the answer. Give everyone the chance to respond to your question.  If necessary, count to 5 in your head before even thinking about saying anything. Be patient and comfortable with the silence. Think of it as thinking time!

7. CALLING ON PARTICIPANTS TO ANSWER QUESTIONS

This is a pet-peeve of mine and makes me feel very uncomfortable on a tour or indeed in any group situation. For example, asking everyone to introduce themselves in front of the group. This can be quite difficult for introverts so I prefer to ask each participant a few questions individually (and not too many closed questions either!)

Likewise, some group members may take longer to warm up than others and may not want to offer any thoughts until later in the tour or programme. Pointing at someone for a response will only make that person feel put on the spot and may affect their inclination to speak later in the programme.

Although you shouldn’t let any one person dominate the discussion, equally you shouldn’t pressure anyone to respond. My mantra is: People should feel encouraged but not required to participate.

8. IGNORING OR NOT UNDERSTANDING RESPONSES

If you don’t understand the response, ask for clarification: don’t just nod! Repeat the answer back in your own words (‘So, you believe that…’ or ‘Let me check that I’m understanding this correctly…’) or ask another question to get more info: 

‘Would/Could you tell me a little more about…?’

‘I’d be interested in hearing more about..’.

You can also ask for more evidence: ‘What do you see that makes you say that?’

9. NOT KEEPING THE DISCUSSION ON COURSE

Don’t be afraid to interject and re-focus the conversation where necessary. While some participants may offer just a few words in response to your questions, others might go on for ten minutes every time you ask an open question. Part of your job as a facilitator, guide or educator is to manage the discussion

A good facilitator can steer the conversation back on course by politely interjecting with questions at appropriate moments ‘If I may stop you for a moment….” Most people are rarely upset by an interjection that will let them continue talking. Asking additional questions will make your participants feel understood and valued. Using additional questions to keep the discussion on course, will help you to maintain the control and flow of the discussion.

I hope I’ve given you some food for thought here. If you’d like to seriously learn about your questioning style, here’s an exercise to help you work on your technique:

FOLLOW UP EXERCISE

Record yourself leading a tour or educational programme by keeping your phone in your pocket and pressing play on a voice recording app (I like Voice Recorder). Play back the recording and listen out for these common mistakes. To keep track, list the above mistakes on a sheet of paper, and put a tick mark next to a particular mistake each time you hear yourself make it. When you’re done, pick an area to focus on and practice using some of the strategies mentioned above.

Have you made any of these mistakes before? How did you correct the habit? Let me know in the comments below!