We spend our days asking questions, but most of us never actually spend any time honing our questioning skills.
For some people questioning comes easily. But for the majority of us, we are not asking enough questions AND we’re not phrasing them in the best way.
I feel we’re missing a trick here. The ability to ask good questions is one of the most useful skills you can have. You can instantly engage people, provoke curiosity, find out what people already know and solve problems.
The good news is that we can all become better questioners with time and practice. AND, interestingly, the more questions we ask, the more we improve our emotional intelligence, which in turn makes us better questioners.
To become a better questioner, it’s really important first all to avoid these 10 common mistakes. Which ones of these are you guilty of? I’ve certainly done a few of these in the past! And stay tuned until the end where I’m sharing a follow-up exercise you can do to work on your own questioning skills!
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 (and we’ll get to that in a bit). 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 NOT PITCHED AT THE RIGHT LEVEL
You need to tailor your questions to the level of the group. There is no point asking questions that are too complex or too simplistic as you will frustrate your group.
Use questions in your introduction and throughout to assess the group’s existing knowledge and understanding of a subject or theme. Find out where they are at.
You can then 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?’
Leading questions often provide false answers because the tendency is just to repeat back or paraphrase what the question asker said. They don’t give you any insights into what people are thinking. You won’t get a response that will surprise you or intrigue you or even make you think of something in a different way. It will just be a version of what you said in your leading question.
Be very wary of using leading questions. Watch out for any biases that creep in. Being aware that you are doing this is a really good step to fixing the problem. The next time you ask a leading question, notice what effect it has on the group and what responses they give. Make a mental note to yourself to rephrase your question as an open-ended one that invites a variety of responses.
4. ASKING WHY QUESTIONS
‘Why’ questions can make people clam up because they can appear challenging , provocative 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.
It’s the ‘why do YOU…’ that’s the issue here. I’m not against all why questions – using the 5 whys in problem-solving is a really good technique for example – but you should avoid asking ‘why’ questions in relation to people
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?’
You could also say ‘tell me more’ or ‘tell me about that’ to gather more information. The aim is to be able to learn as much as possible to understand what they see that you don’t see, what they know that you don’t know.
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, for the Visual Thinking Strategies fans out there). 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).
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.
10. ASKING ‘ANY QUESTIONS’
And finally, asking ‘Any questions?’ at the end of every stop on your guided tour or every 5 minutes does not make you interactive or engaging. Nor will it win you 5 star reviews. Participants have questions throughout a discussion, they should feel that they have the time and space to ask those questions as they go along, not at the end. Besides, one sure fire to forget any questions you did have is to actually ask anyone if they have any questions – you will be guaranteed tumbleweed and silence as people scramble to think of anything to ask. By the time you’ve asked this a 4th time, they will have given up caring. I’ve been on a guided tour where this was aksed 15 times. It got to the point where i was cringing waiting for the ‘any questions’ moment and the inevitable silence that followed…
A better way would be to recap the main points of discussion and remind participants of where the conversation has gone. At the end of your recap you can always ask if anyone has anything further to add or anything they are still wondering about. But generally, remind participants to ask questions throughout!
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:
Here’s a follow up exercise for you to do to improve your questioning skills.
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) or if you’re working on Zoom, just hit record.
Play back the recording and listen out for any of these 10 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.
THE ART OF QUESTIONING MASTERCLASS
If you’re interested in improving your questioning skills and would like to be taken step-by-step through the process, you can also take my special 90 minute recorded masterclass with a range of tools and guided exercises to help you consistently create, sort & evaluate your own brilliant questions
In this class:
✔️Learn about the different types of questions and when to use them
✔️Learn simple yet powerful ways to generate, formulate, sort and evaluate questions in response to prompts, artworks and images
✔️Learn to analyse, track & reflect on your own questions, turn closed into open questions (and vice versa)
✔️Finally you will learn new thinking routines, techniques and activities that you can use regularly to perfect your questioning technique
The Art of Questioning is available as a self-paced class in The Thinking Museum Self-Paced Programme.