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Do You Agree: There’s No Such Thing As A Dumb Question?

Leslie Ciborowski
President Of TrainSmart, Inc.

In the 2007 Ms. Teen USA pageant, South Carolina Teen Caitlin Upton, who was a finalist for the title, was asked this question: “Recent polls show that a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?” Her incoherent answer went viral. To date, almost 64 million people have viewed her response.

In 1979, Senator Edward Kennedy was overwhelming favored to win the Democratic nomination for president. But his campaign imploded before it was out the gate, when he too flubbed his answer to the seemingly simple question, “Why do you want to be president?”

In 2008, then vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin sat down for an interview with Katie Couric who asked her the simple question, “Before you were tapped for this, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read to stay informed and understand the world?” She couldn’t name one.

What all three of these questions have in common is that they were not particularly hard. In fact, it is the simplicity of these questions that make the responses so noteworthy.

And that is the power of questions. They can uncover truths about knowledge, commitment and veracity.  For the South Carolina teen, it showed she was intellectually lacking, for Ted Kennedy it showed his heart wasn’t really in the campaign, and for Sarah Palin, it showed that she might not be ready to be one heartbeat away from the oval office.

There are many careers that require superior questioning skills: Scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, journalists, detectives, teachers and facilitator/trainers. The ability to ask the right question at the right time is the difference between being a journeyman trainer and a master trainer.

Many neophyte trainers think when they master open-ended questions that they are home free. But anyone can learn how to ask open-ended questions. That in and of itself does not make a brilliant question asker.

I was once co-facilitating with a new trainer who had just learned about using open-ended questions. Early in her facilitation, one of the participants answered a question incorrectly. Just liked she learned in her training, she turned to the group and asked: “What do the rest of you think?” It was the right question at the right time.

However, every time a participant asked her a direct question she deflected with the same technique: “What do the rest of you think?”

By the end of the day, that question sounded so mechanical that it depressed her credibility as a trainer.

It’s not enough to ask the question; you have to know why you are asking it and how you hope the question will enhance the participants’ learning experience.

There are four kinds of questions that trainers can ask: Fact finding, Illuminative, Introspective and Decision-Making.

Fact Finding questions are like the questions used by journalists to get the details of a story: they are the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How questions. At the end of a training module, facilitators often ask these kinds of questions to get a sense for what the participants took away from the module.

Illuminative questions are designed to help participants connect their own relationship to the data being discussed. These are often the questions that expose a participant’s emotion regarding the subject. An illuminative question will often have the word “feel” in it as in “How does this make you feel?” or “What do you find most challenging about the new system?”

Introspective questions help participants examine their own beliefs, values and assumptions: They are the so what questions that help people make sense of situations. They are the questions that demand personal reflection. “How does this change how you want to show up as a leader?” “How does the new policy affect you?”

When you need a group to take action, using decision-making questions can help move the process along. Decision-making questions are like: “What do we need to start, stop and continue to make this a success?” or “What are the next steps?”

The type of questions you ask should be tied to your goals for the training. Do the participants need to master facts? Is the goal to have them reflect on their leadership skills? Do you want them to come up with an action plan for their personal development? Do you want them to explore how they are feeling about a situation?

Your answers to those questions will inform the kinds of questions you will want to use in your training.

How do you know if you are asking good questions? Participants will let you know. If not in person, usually in their evaluations. Facilitator/trainers who are gifted question-askers often get feedback that participants were engaged, that the conversation was lively, that the facilitator/trainer made them think about the topic in a different way.

The key to being good at asking questions is being skilled at listening- at having a natural curiosity about what others think. Strong question-askers have a real desire to dig deeper into others’ perceptions and beliefs. When participants know that you are not just asking questions for the sake of asking questions but because you actually want to hear the answers – you will create a learning environment that is engaged and energized.

Want to read more on the art of asking questions: Here are some books, Ted Talks and articles we recommend.

A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger

The Power To Question: Tiffany Poirier at TEDxVictoria 2013

A Lesson in Coaching Skills: The Art of Asking Powerful Questions

Asking Powerful Questions

Skills in Questioning (How To Question Others)

Update: Looking to enroll in a train-the-trainer course in 2017? We are offering open enrollment courses in Chicago, ILLos Angeles, CASan Diego, CA,  Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN,  Malvern, PA and Orland, FL. Have a group of 5 or more, and want custom we have on-site options for you too.