The Art of Strategic Questions

The Art of Strategic Questions

The right questions are key.

Skilled facilitators know that asking the right question is the key to unlocking conversation and making meetings thrive. By listening carefully and discerning the issues a group faces, then framing the right questions, the facilitator can be the catalyst for amazing results. The right question can energize the group, focus strategy, and shift the balance toward a successful outcome. This is true for both small and large groups.

The power of questions came to the forefront during a World Café I facilitated with a congregation in Altadena, California.  After a white police officer shot an African American father of seven children, this congregation decided to hold a forum. Like so many communities across America, gun violence fueled by racial distrust had visited their city.  Emotions were raw, and they wanted their discussions to be safe. No open shouting matches. No diatribes or defensive speeches. They wanted a respectful dialogue on a potent subject plaguing America. They invited me to facilitate.

I recommended a World Café format.  Framing the right questions is essential to a World Cafe.  After establishing ground rules and pausing for prayer, I invited people to discuss in groups of four, “How has gun violence personally affected your life?” Everyone had a story to share. Whether telling accounts of a family member, friend or work associate, the question unleashed a torrent of pain. Some form of gun violence had directly touched many.

The second round in the Café addressed the same question, again for twenty minutes. Once again, people shared personal stories. In the third round, we asked a different question: “What gives you hope?” People shared discoveries and insights. This time talk of despair and attempts to hold onto faith filled the room. I heard anger and more pain. When the group met in plenary, what the World Café movement calls a “harvest,” several themes were surfaced.

Some people spoke of suicide, others of domestic violence, a few talked about accidents. Most powerfully, people noticed that the emotional injuries were deep. Cultural differences aside, the most surprising insight of the group was the uniform sense of helplessness felt by police officers and lay folk, people of color and Caucasians, church members and visitors, clergy and laity. A few people said the forum, itself, gave them hope. The right question framed in the proper format had created a safety zone for honest conversation.

The best questions emerge from listening.

The best questions emerge from the facilitator listening carefully to a steering committee or planning group. An excellent first question to ask such a planning team is: “What strategic questions do you most need to ask?” or “What question, if asked, would stimulate your best thinking?”

Juanita Brown and David Isaac write that the best questions begin with a why, what, or how; rather than with who, when, or where. A great set of compelling questions can be found in their book, The World Café, p. 173.  I have used questions like these in community meetings, governing boards, and staff meetings.  Across the board, they frame discussions well and move the group forward.

Examples of great questions.

Here are a few examples of questions that can stimulate imagination, engender creativity, and engage every voice.

  • What question, if answered, could make the most significant difference to the future of the situation we’re exploring here?
  • What assumptions do we need to test or challenge in thinking about this situation?
  • What do we hear underneath the variety of opinions expressed?
  • What has been your primary learning or insight so far?
  • What’s the next level of thinking we need to address?
  • What needs our immediate attention going forward?
  • If we knew we would succeed, what bold steps might we choose?
  • What seed might we plant together today that could make the most difference to the future of [our situation]?

Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” The same can holds for a great question: ask the right question, and you can change the world.

For more information.

For more ideas on how to make your meetings and organization empower all voices and build inclusive communities, check out my website: www.civicreinventions.com or send me an email at mark.smutny@civicreinventions.com.

Copyright © 2019 Mark Smutny and Civic Reinventions, Inc. All rights reserved. For permission to distribute copies of this article in any form, contact: mark.smutny@civicreinventions.com.