IS THERE SUCH A THING AS A BAD QUESTION?
So, we’ve talked about questions in the past on this podcast and it’s a subject I like returning to time and time again as it’s so important for what we do as facilitators and educators.
Questioning is THE skill to master if you want to lead engaging and interactive programmes and it’s a skill that you need to actively work at to improve.
You can’t just listen to this podcast and everything will be fine – sadly – no, you need to go and practice formulating questions, making a note of what works and what doesn’t and reframing where necessary.
You need to be able to try things out and experiment and innovate to keep things fresh. And whilst you’re doing all of this you also need to avoid some of these question types that I’m going to bring up here.
As some of you may remember I’ve been studying for a coaching certification this year and it’s made me even more aware of how important questions are (if that was even possible) and I thought it would be handy here to share 10 types of questions you want to avoid on your tours and educational programmes.
#1 CASUAL QUESTIONS
So I’ve stated in the past that a good question is clear, simple and purposeful. Good questions can be many things: relevant, concise, powerful, relevant.
Some questions are just too casual those – the kind of questions that don’t have any focus or seem to be going anywhere. The sort of question that you might want to answer with a shrug of your shoulders if you were being a bit flippant.
I’m thinking about questions like ‘So, what’s this painting all about, then?’ It’s just not specific enough. And if you applied this to an abstract painting, I don’t think you’d get very far apart from a few puzzled looks.
It’s worth thinking about how you could be more focused and less vague.
Casual questions are those that are unclear or uncertain. They might also be out of context or too broad and not specific enough.
An alternative to ‘what’s this painting all about, then?’ might be ‘What do you think the story is here?’ or even more specific, ‘what do you think the story is between figure A and figure B?” or ‘What’s happening in this section?’ and you’re narrowing down the scope. You may even want to share a piece of information about the artwork and object to place it in context and then ask ‘what’s going on here?’.
If you have asked a casual question by mistake, you can always follow up with a more specific one.
#2 ROTE QUESTIONS
If you find yourself always asking the same questions this may be a sign that you’re getting a bit staid or, perhaps a bit lazy in your questioning.
We all have questions that are favourites that we ask time and time again, but you don’t want questioning to be a routine process, you actually want it to be fuelled by curiosity.
So, make a conscious effort to switch it up a bit if you find yourself asking the same old questions time and time again.
Think about different questions that you can ask your participants as well as different ways to ask them.
The types of questions you ask should capture their attention, spark their curiosity, and foster an active learning environment.
You can prepare some new questions in advance and try them out with a variety of groups to see what happens.
#3 STACKED QUESTIONS
This is when you ask several questions at once. You may think you’ve only asked one question but you haven’t and your group are confused. Maybe you’ve even asking the same question many times in lots of different ways. You’ll get a variety of responses with stacked questions:
- TUMBLEWEED – no one will say anything
- ANSWER THE LAST QUESTION- people will just answer the last question they heard.
- ANSWERS TO THE EASIEST QUESTION (or the one they like the most or feel the most comfortable with)
You are assuming that your participants are hanging on your every word and will answer all the questions.
Expecting the person to fully track, process and respond to all of the stacked questions is unrealistic. So, if you do get a response it’s just someone trying their best.
Whatever you’re doing – stop.
Here you’re thinking out loud. You need to think before you speak – do your thinking silently and then ask the question. Keep it clear and simple – one question at a time! It is OK to be brief.
#4 LEADING QUESTIONS
Leading questions are ones that (subtly) prompt or suggest a certain answer: more often than not, it’s one that you want to hear rather than a genuine answer.
They can include the answer or point someone in the right direction.
They can also have some kind of carrot or stick to send the listener to the ‘right’ answer. You have thought of the outcome that you want from this discussion and you want to lead your participants there.
Leading questions can be intentional or unintentional.
Quite often, facilitators are unaware they are doing it. I hear them quite often when people are starting to lead discussions about art or objects and are changing from a more traditional lecturing style to a more discussion-based one. It’s often due to a desire to want to control what is happening and as I said it’s quite often unconscious – they don’t know they’re doing it.
But participants don’t like to feel ‘hemmed in’ with leading questions. So, if do watch out for leading questions as you may not know you’re doing it. It is important to recognise what they are and when or if you’re using them. FYI you can also lead people by your body language and voice emphasis too.
You want to use questioning as a way to open up conversations and discussion, not to lead someone down a prescribed path. You want to get your participants to think in new ways.
We’ve used this example before but it serves a good purpose here too – If you ask ‘How would you describe this painting: depressing?’ this is a leading question, if you’ve made this mistake you can quickly correct it by adding extra options, a list of other words. This still makes it slightly leading as you’re not giving the participant free-reign to come up with their own ideas but it does open up the options somewhat.
Leading questions 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.
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.
#5 JUDGEMENTAL QUESTIONS
These are questions that imply judgement.
Sometimes it’s a statement rather than a question itself but the tone implies judgement on your behalf.
‘Why do you think that?’ can be seen as judgemental and ‘why’ questions in general that are directed at a person can be seen as judgemental.
Some questions just put people on the spot and make them clam up. You don’t want to be asking people to justify or defend their position or what they’ve just said.
You don’t want that – you want to encourage conversation.
You may ask for evidence – ‘what do you see that makes you say that?‘ Is a much better alternative to ‘why do you say that?’ which could be interpreted as being loaded with judgement.
On the whole, you’re aiming for open-ended non-judgemental questions that open up conversation and make people feel comfortable.
When in doubt, ask the question with WHAT, not WHY!
Less judgement, more curiosity.
#6 BINARY QUESTIONS
These are your closed questions that have a yes or no, either or answer. Binary questions narrow the available responses to two: yes or no.
They are useful in your introduction (see episode 44) and for checking in throughout with your group but not for opening up conversation. Try to use questions starting with a what or a how and this will help you to avoid these types of questions.
#7 JARGON QUESTIONS
Jargon is a word or phrase that is difficult to understand or not widely used by the general population.
The worst part about jargon is that you may not even realise you’re asking questions involving jargon – it’s become so much a part of how you talk that you assume your participants know the terms too.
Every field has their own jargon and language that they use. Everyone who has expertise in an area or is used to the common language of that area gets used to that language.
Then, when you’re trying to ask a question to someone who may or may not be knowledgeable about those things, we have to stop and realise that we need to use the most plain language possible when we’re asking a question so that the most number of people can understand it.
Don’t make any assumptions about prior knowledge of any terms that you use regularly.
Jargon is a gatekeeper and can prevent people from participating. Avoid acronyms, technical terms and archaic language. If you must use an uncommon concept, provide definitions to simplify them. Ask someone who is not in your field to participate in one of your sessions and get them to tell you whether you ask questions with jargon in them.
#8 ANY QUESTIONS?
I had to include it. I hear it so often.
Asking ‘Any questions?’ and other questions like this (for example, ‘Do you understand?’) are often met with silence.
This is because your participants perceive you doing this as more of a ritualistic exercise rather than you asking a genuine question with a clear purpose.
Only use this if you’re genuinely interested in the responses and you have a clear purpose.
And only do it once or twice at the very most!
If you must ask ‘any questions’ and are met with silence, use a follow up question that will probe further.
#9 TUGGING AND GUESSING QUESTIONS
I paired these two together for the final category. These are types of questions that I’ve heard frequently on tours and educational programmes in the museum and elsewhere.
A guessing question is something like
‘How long do you think it took man to invent the wheel?’
“How long do you think man has been on earth?’
These are questions that encourage guessing or speculation rather than thought.
Guessing questions can sometimes be useful in generating discussions, but on the whole and if used inappropriately they encourage thoughtless guessing rather than thinking carefully.
A tugging question would be asking ‘Share another reason” or a tugging relentlessly for an answer (‘C’mon you know this!’)
They can be perceived as nagging for an answer. At times I’ve heard ‘What else?’ been repeated over and over again until the participants get to the point that the facilitator wants them to say. Whether they get there or not, this can feel uncomfortable and frustrating for everyone.
If you really want your participants to share more answers to a specific question, then perhaps it’s better to follow up with a more specific second question rather than nagging them to provide more.
For example, if your initial question was ‘Why do you think Van Gogh moved to Paris?’ and someone responds ‘To be near his brother’ and you wanted instead to focus more on him being around & influenced by other artists, you could first share some more information about the fact that Vincent’s brother Theo was there in Paris but that he was also connected to a large community of artists in the city, including Monet and others.
Your follow up question might then be ‘What do you think it was like for VG to be in a new city like Paris and surrounded by all these artists?’
If you had initially just asked for another response – ‘Give me some other reasons’, ‘any thoughts? Anyone?’ – you may not get there naturally enough by ‘tugging’ alone.
#10 RETRIEVAL QUESTIONS
This is when you’re asking for recall of information that you’ve already covered in the programme or information that you think your group should already know.
This doesn’t encourage collaborative thinking.
It only encourages the person who ‘knows’ the answer to speak. Those who don’t know or can’t remember don’t feel great either.
And if no-one knows, you’re just listening to tumbleweed again…
If you’ve only got an hour together on your programme, you don’t want to waste it on questions that don’t get the group discovering and collaborating together, thinking carefully and coming up with ideas.
Retrieval questions may work in the classroom but ‘testing’ your groups memory or knowledge on a tour or programme in the museum won’t bring any tangible benefits. It’s really asking a question for the sake of asking a question.
So there you have it 10 types of questions to never ask – or at least to be wary of.
Remembering that good questions are clear, concise, relevant, purposeful and thoughtful. Even better if they are sequenced and adapted to the level of the group.
So now you know what type of questions to avoid on your programmes and if you are interested in learning more about questions – go back and listen to episode 4, episode 10, episode 15 and episode 36 on this subject. I told you it was a favourite of mine!
Other Art Engager episodes about questioning:
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