Asking Questions that an Audience will Answer

By Jeff Serenius

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cartoon of people sitting at table after presentationIn that moment of silent panic your mind races. Are these people really that stupid? I just did an awesome job presenting this material. My message was tight, my slides were stunning, and I included just enough humor to keep the mood light. Why are they not responding?

Asking the Right Kinds of Questions

Their lack of involvement may have nothing to do with the quality of your message, and everything to do with your approach to asking for their engagement.

Engaging others in discussion is one of the most powerful communications skills a leader can develop. Leaders achieve results through the efforts of others, and there is no better way to engage than through artful questioning.

Creating Safety for Your Audience

The Art of the Question has three basic elements: creating safety, phrasing, and fully listening for the response.

Of the three elements, safety may be the most important. Making the discussion safe begins with you. Ask yourself, are you truly curious what your teammates think?

Are you frustrated that they just don’t get it? If someone disagrees, are you willing to hear them out?

Making the discussion safe by setting an open tone is job one.

Avoid “Any” in a Question

The second element is the phrasing of the question. So many discussions begin with a worn-out phrase like this: “Are there any questions?”

Unfortunately, this approach is the exact wrong thing to say if your intent is to actually encourage discussion.

It turns out, the word ANY is a discussion stifler. Are there ANY questions? Do you have ANY questions? Does ANYONE have ANY questions? All are the kiss of death to beginning an active dialog.

Ask Questions that Elicit Perspective, Not “Right” Answers

Participants respond best when they are asked to share their perspective without the risk of being made wrong, or thought of as stupid. I like to open discussions by asking them the first question.

Make that question one that everyone could respond to. For example:

  • Who will begin the discussion?
  • What steps in this new process do you think will most help our clients?

Beginning like this allows participants to share what they do know, rather than admitting what they do not know.

Discussion happens when we ask questions that allow participants to share their beliefs, perspective, and/or opinion; rather than asking questions with yes/no/right/wrong answers (or no answer at all).

Look at these example questions below:

Less opportunity for discussion
 More opportunity for discussion
I really like this. Who disagrees? What surprised you most about how the new…?
Do you think the new process will work? Where do you see the new process improving our operations?
Will this new process meet your needs?  How will this new process be valuable to you?



Just notice the possible answers to the questions above. The questions in the left-hand column could be answered using a single word, with no opportunity for additional insight.

The questions on the right elicit an answer with more complete responses and give the respondent an opportunity to share their perspective, opinion, or belief (and, by the way, isn’t that the goal of the discussion?)

Listen Fully to the Answers

The last element of artful questioning is to fully listen to the response. The biggest contribution you make in facilitating any discussion is the gift of fully listening to someone’s input. Doing so validates their contribution. It shows others that when they participate they are heard. And who knows, you may even discover an incredible, game-changing idea in the process.

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