The Secret of the Starting Question

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    The Secret of the Starting Question

    The ability of the group to respond to a question is significantly impacted by the quality of the question asked by the facilitator. The starting question is the term we, at Leadership Strategies, use for the question the facilitator asks to begin a discussion. Typically, a starting question is used at the beginning of every agenda item in a facilitated process. For example, for creating a plan to fix the hiring problem a facilitator might use the following agenda:

    A. Getting started (purpose, personal objectives, process, ground rules)

    B. How does the process work today?

    C. What are the problems and root causes?

    D. What are potential improvements?

    E. How might we priorities these improvements?

    F. How will the new process work?

    F. How will we implement this new process?

    G. Review and close

    Agenda items B through F represent the core of the work for the facilitated session. For each of these agenda items, there is a time when the facilitator asks a question and expects the participants to begin responding. The ability of the group to respond to a question is significantly impacted by the quality of the question asked by the facilitator. It is much like starting a fire. If the facilitator uses the wrong material to ask the question, he will get this flickering flame that he has to blow on and feed continually to just keep it going. If the facilitator uses the right material, she will quickly have a bonfire of responses with people hardly able to wait to make their contributions.

    What is the secret of the starting question? How do you get the bonfire of responses? Let’s examine these two questions to understand the secret.

    Question Type A: “The first thing we want to talk about are inputs. What are the inputs to the scheduling process?”

    Question Type B: “If you were about to develop the school schedule, what information would you need to have close by?”

    What is it about the second question that makes it a better question? When we make this same inquiry to people we train in facilitation skills, here are a sample of responses we get:

    Why is Question Type “B” Better?

    • Uses their language (“school schedule,” “information”)
    • More personal, addresses them directly (“you”)
    • Action oriented (“about to”)
    • Open ended (“what information”)

    While these are true points, they don’t quite focus directly on the secret of the starting question. When we take the students through a quick exercise, they understand the secret in a way they helps them to retain it. The facilitator asks the students to close their eyes and listen to question type A. After saying the question, the facilitator asks them to open their eyes and to raise their hands if they saw something as he was reading the question. One or two typically say they saw a flow chart or diagram or something of that sort. Most indicate they saw nothing. However, when the facilitator asks them to close their eyes a second time and to then listen to question type B, we have a different result. Typically two-thirds, if not more, see an image. The image described by most involves sitting at a desk with items they use for scheduling arranged on the desk. Herein lies the secret of the starting question.

    Secret #1 – The Secret of the Starting Question

    Great starting questions draw a vivid image of the answers.

    Use starting questions that draw a vivid image so participants can more easily see their answers and start responding.

    Why is a vivid image key to the starting question? When the facilitator draws a vivid image, the participants can literally “see” the answers, and can begin responding right away.

    Type A versus Type B Questions

    Contrast this with the Type A starting question. While a Type B starting question draws a vivid image, the Type A starting question simply asks what you as the facilitator want to know. If you want to know the inputs to the scheduling process, you ask “What are the inputs to the scheduling process?” After you ask the question, the participants have to put their hands to their heads and begin thinking of answers. What are they doing? They are probably trying to imagine themselves back at their school the last time they did scheduling. They are probably trying to draw the image that the facilitator did not draw for them! Unfortunately, this effort usually results in the room going silent for several moments – just at the time when the facilitator is looking for responses. In essence, due to the poor starting question, the facilitator has driven the room silent!

    It is important to recognize that Type A questions are the “default.” If you do not think about your question in advance, more times than not you will ask a Type A question. For example, suppose the agenda calls for the group to identify problems with the current hiring process. If you have not prepared an image building Type B question in advance, more than likely you will ask a Type A question (“What are the problems you have encountered with the hiring process?”).


    For more resources, see the Library topic Facilitation.


    Michael Wilkinson is the CEO and Managing Director of Leadership Strategies, Inc., “The Facilitation Company” and author of Amazon best-seller “The Secrets of Facilitation”, “The Secrets to Masterful Meetings”, and the brand new “The Executive Guide to Facilitating Strategy.” Leadership Strategies is a global leader in facilitation services, providing companies with dynamic professional facilitators who lead executive teams and task forces in areas like strategic planning, issue resolution, process improvement and others. They are also a leading provider of facilitation training in the United States.