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Trainer’s tip: How to ask questions that push the conversation forward


Terri Griffith provides some tips on opening up discussion through asking the right questions.

Nilofer Merchant, author of The New How, gave a guest lecture in my Managing Technology and Innovation class a few weeks ago.  Her talk, about asking good questions, inspired me to think about how to ask questions that push the conversation forward rather than shut it down. 

There are four types of questions:

"You, as an individual - whether in the role of the facilitator or not - can positively, or negatively, affect a group’s progress through questions." 

1 Factual

According to Lindley, how many types of questions are there?

Answer: Four. (Five if you allow for combinations.)

2 Convergent

"Why do the types of questions asked change the dialogue?"

Answer: Because they stimulate different kinds of thinking (for example, factual/memory, convergent/reasoning toward an end).

3 Divergent

"How could you pose questions to stimulate innovation?"

One possible answer: By focusing less on factual and convergent questions.

4 Evaluative

"Do you think divergent questions are helpful or a waste of time?"

Answer: At the end of a discussion, evaluative questions help us get to action items. 

These tips are the result of exploring how we think of types of questions as triggers for innovation.  From a training perspective you could think of these as questions that trigger new knowledge development for the individuals and the group.

Provide facts as they are known in the materials prior to the meeting.
This puts the facts on the table - provides a stake in the ground.

Ask that questions of fact be handled before the session begins.
I acknowledge that there may be differences of knowledge or opinion and these do need to be settled.  If they are settled, say in a threaded online discussion, then they are out of the way before the session begins.

During the session, be biased towards divergent questions.
There are many reasons to do this: 

  • Divergent questions open the discussion.
  • Divergent questions are less likely to be hidden power plays.
  • Divergent questions motivate more creative responses.

Hold evaluative questions to the end.
We are often told in brainstorming to hold evaluation to the end as to receive negative evaluation for your idea reduces the likelihood that you will propose another another.

Plan your questioning strategy before going to the meeting.
Again, I’ll give Nilofer credit.  At the end of my class she urged us to think about our questions before going into a meeting (and I’d add before any collaboration, face to face or otherwise). Just as I hope you take a peek at the agenda so you are prepped on the topic and information you might need to provide (you do have an agenda don’t you?) - you can add to your preparation some thought around the questions you could ask to help the group move forward. 

This final tip is powerful: You, as an individual - whether in the role of the facilitator or not - can positively, or negatively, affect a group’s progress through questions.


Terri Griffith is a professor of management at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business where she describes her teaching and research as "helping people work with technology". Her blog, Technology and Organizations, is on several “top” lists and she has recently begun blogging for GigaOM.  Terri’s book, The Plugged-In Manager, is due out in October.



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