Greek philosophers and Talmudic scholars taught us that asking the right questions lead to a depth of understanding and learning. Asking good questions today remains an essential tool for building understanding and is critical for enabling collaboration. Today’s workplaces, communities and social networks are in desperate need for ways to have difficult conversations and a contemporary corollary may be as easy as asking questions at four distinct levels of understanding: Objective, Reflective, Interpretive and Decisional.

​Navigating A Tough Conversation
hen a conversational road is rocky, having a formula to navigate the conversation flow can make a big difference.  Asking questions can not only make the most of group member wisdom and experience, it also can help to move a meeting from one person's talking to the entire group's taking action. While there are many questions one might consider asking in any given situation, there are certain systematic methods for asking questions that can actually promote understanding and productive dialogue.

The Focused Conversation Method, developed by the Institute for Cultural Affairs, is built around a highly effective questioning technique that is relatively easy to learn, has wide applications and can quickly demonstrate results. The four-part method is built on the premise that productive group conversations benefit from all participants engaging in the conversation as listeners or speakers. It also follows the same sequence as to how people process information.

  • People initially get information through their senses. They hear or see something.
  • Next, they have personal reflections about or associationswith the information. They may like or dislike what they hear, or feel energized or debilitated by it.
  • After these first two stages, they form an interpretation. They attach meaning or significance to the information in this third stage.
  • Finally, people typically make a decision about whether to act on or respond to the information they have been presented.

Using the Focused Conversation Method
The Focused Conversation involves formulating and asking questions that provoke thoughtful dialogue and promote maximum input from the group. The structure of this process consists of asking questions that mirror the way people process so that the group gets at information at all four levels of the critical thinking process: the objective, reflective, interpretive and decisional levels.

  • Objective questions get at the facts. These questions help a group recall the details of an event or situation. They help focus the attention of the group by asking questions such as: "Who was there?" or "What was said?" or "What did you see that was most memorable?” These are questions one can ask of everyone in the group. They are easy, low-risk questions. The answers create a picture of what the entire group sees. It enables everyone to recognize that we all experience the very same situation in different ways, recalling different details depending on our angle of vision.

  •  Reflective questions explore emotions, feelings and associations. They help a group understand what people's emotional responses or associations might be with a situation or an issue. Examples of reflective questions are: "What was particularly exciting to you about the presentation?" or "What was it that he said that caused concern or raised some caution for you?" These questions are asked to elicit both positive and negative emotions or associations. At this and subsequent levels, questions are typically asked of the entire group, without calling on a particular person's participation.

  •  Interpretive questions address values, purposes and meanings. These questions highlight the significance people assign to a particular event or situation. Interpretative questions elicit new understanding or key learning through such questions as: "What is the impact of what has been done so far?" "What was achieved?" or "What was overlooked?" It is at the interpretive level that participants build on their experience and feelings and move to analysis. They often are addressing the question, "So what?"

  • Decisional questions encourage participants to decide how they are going to respond to the topic and the discussion. Decisional questions focus on next steps and actions needed by asking questions such as: "What will you take away from this conversation?" "How will you approach this situation differently as a result of this discussion?" or "What next steps do you plan to take now?" Decisional questions focus on next steps and actions needed.  Making a public announcement about one's resolve can not only  generate commitment but may motivate others to take action as well.

Questions Provide Structure, Welcome Diversity

Asking and answering questions in this systematic way can lay the foundation for consensus building. This particular structure promotes a dialogue that acknowledges diverse points of view and guides the conversation through tough terrain. It capitalizes on the brainpower of all the group members and takes them through a natural information exploration process together.

It results in better, clearer decision making because participants are able to see and consider a situation from many different vantage points. This type of dialogue creates a context upon which consensus can then be built, and it also reveals those areas where consensus may already exist. At the conclusion of a Focused Conversation, participants cannot only see where they might agree and disagree, but have an understanding about how they got there.

To navigate the rough road of tough conversation and leverage both the intellectual capital and good will of people it's critical to ask the right questions which foster understanding. Mastering the focused conversation is a good start!

For more information:​ The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Ways to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace (R. Brian Stanfield) or The Art of Focused Conversation for Schools: Over 100 Ways to Guide Clear Thinking and Promote Learning (Jo Nelson)

Learn how to facilitate a Focused Conversation at a

ToP Facilitation Methods class.

Call for details (512-289-3978)

February 2017

Six Culprits Guilty of Murdering Your Meetings (And How to Arrest Them)

​​Asking Questions to Talk About Tough Topics 

2. Bad Timing
While it's the easiest to solve, the most often cited problem leading to participant frustration is poor time management: a meeting starts and/or ends later than it was scheduled. If you're concerned about latecomers missing the beginning of your meeting, document proceedings on a flip chart and/or catch them up during a break. Watch the clock and start wrapping up five to ten minutes before the stated end time.

3. The Agenda that Ate Manhattan
Closely related and frequently contributing to "bad timing" above is the hastily prepared, unrealistic agenda. An overly ambitious agenda will frustrate and disappoint attendees when it doesn’t achieve stated objectives. It also causes a meeting to run way over time. Plan for success, not frustration. Be realistic about what can be accomplished. Consider the background of the participants, their level of familiarity and comfort with the issues to be discussed, the size of the group and the participation that will be required.

4. Debates and Monologues
The only thing more dreaded than tolerating two people in a confrontational debate that doesn’t advance a meeting's objectives is being an unwilling audience to someone who takes the stage for an uninvited soliloquy. While good operating agreements or meeting ground rules can encourage attendees to share the stage with others, skilled facilitation is required to harness attendee enthusiasm, park ideas for later discussion and help attendees get back on track when an agonizing conversation takes a meeting off-track. Be prepared to jump in when a meeting hijacker pauses or takes a breath. Ask the speaker to help the group understand how the comments will contribute to the meeting purpose and request a brief summary of the main point or "bottom line." A prompt may simply be asking, "Can you tell us the specific point you are trying to make?"

5. Non-Participation
During a meeting if participants are reading or responding to emails, participating in side conversations or engaging in off-track activities the productivity of the meeting is at risk. Meeting leaders who start on time, asking the right questions and assuring that the conversations are relevant, can minimize the temptation for participant's attention to stray to what they feel are more important activities.

6. Dejas Vu
Meetings can drag on unnecessarily if attendees re-hash conversations or try to revisit decisions that were already made. Perhaps it’s because they missed a previous meeting or maybe the resolution was not clear.  Get beyond this dilemma by being vigilant about documenting decisions at the end of every meeting and managing follow-up as needed.

Pay attention to the cost to your participants and your organization if your meetings are deadly. If you create purposeful and realistic agendas, manage participation and produce relevant documentation of your accomplishments, you can breath life into your gatherings and arrest those culprits before they murder your next meeting.

Lynda Baker, January 2017

Ask people what kills their meeting productivity and no one is at a loss for answers! Most of our work today requires some degree of collaboration in meetings yet our efforts are unnecessarily thwarted by challenges that can easily be addressed. If you are responsible for leading meetings, do yourself, your attendees and your organization a favor, and read on. The following deadly productivity problems have fast fixes to help get beyond the pain and get to the participation you need to be productive.

1. Unclear Meeting Purpose
As people are gathering for a meeting it’s rarely a good sign to overhear them asking one another “do you know why we're even meeting?” If you're leading a meeting, be sure your purpose is clearly communicated in advance and the agenda is designed to achieve that purpose. If you post the purpose and agenda prominently on a whiteboard or flip chart you can focus participation and keep the meeting on track.