When is a question not a question?

  • When you don’t leave room for answers to percolate to the surface or you don’t persist with the question if the response isn’t immediate
  • When you signal in all kinds of subtle ways that you’d rather just provide the answer yourself
  • When you abandon the questioning process because the first couple of questions don’t open up a wide and energetic debate

Over the years I’ve made an effort to move from telling to asking. It’s not always been easy. I’ve had to acquire new skills. But most of all I’ve had to work on suppressing my ego, manifesting in a need to provide answers as if that would somehow validate and affirm me in front of the group. I’m sure I’m not the only trainer and facilitator to be dealing with that one! I may even have done a decent job of making that move, but there’s a way to go yet.

I’ve just typed myself some notes after a recent workshop. I’d say that it was highly participatory. The participants said so themselves in the evaluation forms they kindly filled in for me. But the self-reflective voice within me observed that quite a lot of the above was going on. Yes, I was asking questions, but I still heard my voice answering them far too often rather than take the risk of leaving them hanging and allowing silence to provoke reaction, or rephrasing and asking a more incisive question. Sometimes I was the next voice to speak after asking a question. Sometimes I summarised a perfectly clear answer and used that as a platform for more talk.

In these situations I notice a pattern develops. You could look at it like this:

“Some feedback or discussion activities feel a little flat, so I as the facilitator throw in more energy (often in the form of more words from me).”

But it could equally be seen like this:

“The more energetically I answer my own questions, the less the group contributes because the message they receive is that I’m not actually wanting their input really.”

It’s a loop and once you’re in  it, it can be hard to define where it started and what the original intention was.

If you’re a half decent speaker, the group find it all the more easy to relax into role of audience to someone else’s drama, rather than stay with the desired role of writers, directors, actors and producers of their own. It doesn’t help that genuinely participatory training is not the norm. It’s easy for those of us that practice participation to stop moving forward because we’re already doing more than most.

The next step for me is developing the practice of changing this dynamic in the moment, when I hear the first whispers of my inner voice raising the issue, and not ten days later.

So, be honest – what does your inner voice whisper to you when you’re facilitating or participating in groups?



2 thoughts on “When is a question not a question?

  1. Pingback: Culture, activism, and building trust – Naveed Chaudhri

  2. Hi Matthew, I really liked this post, and found it particularly useful to reflect on it following a piece of facilitation I recently did involving bringing people from two organisations together in a joint training event, in a broadly cross-cultural context with relatively limited prior understanding between the two groups.

    If it’s important generally to be aware of one’s egoistic interest as a ‘hired facilitator’ in closing down conversations, and managing that to ensure a genuinely participative event, then it’s even more important to do so when trust between broad groups of participants has yet to be established – perhaps because shared values and differences haven’t yet been openly evaluated by the group as a whole, or if a history or a perceived set of ‘troublesome’ (to one or other group) behaviours or beliefs haven’t yet been talked through. Not only does the facilitator have to manage these tricky discussions, but s/he has to develop personal trust by deliberately engaging in the ‘difficult’ unanswered questions which the organisers may potentially want to manage rather more directively. I think the facilitator’s authenticity as a person mediating such sensitivites is a crucial asset in helping relationships gel, and this may need to be discussed openly in advance with the event organisers, whose interests may not entirely coincide with those of the participants.

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