As a designer of conversation starter tools, which I’m proud to say have been wonderfully received, I have some strong feelings about what makes a good icebreaker question and what simply fails to inspire sharing. If you’re hoping to weed through the millions of discussion-starter questions out there to find the ones best suited for your group, or want to create your own, these seven tips should help.
7 Tips for creating great questions
- Keep questions open-ended – try to stay away from yes/no questions. If you’re a asking at question that suggests a one-word answer, be sure to follow up with a “Why?” to draw out an explanation for the answer.
- Focus on experiences, interests, and wishes – The goal is to draw out interesting responses that are easy to answer. While different questions may be easier or harder for different people, questions that draw from people’s experience tend to be easier to answer than those that require on-the-spot creative thinking. For instance, consider the question, “If you could invent one thing, what would it be?” People spend years trying to think up inventions; you can’t expect someone to come up with an adequate answer in a moment’s time.
- Understand your goal – determine the type of dialogue and relationships you hope to nurture through your discussion questions. If you have a short period of time, simply want to break the ice and get people accustomed to sharing, you’ll want to select more superficial questions that don’t require too much thought, discussion or explanation. If you want people to get to know one another, network, or find common interests, you’ll need questions that scratch under the surface, but don’t feel too intrusive. If your group knows each other well, but wants to explore a topic more deeply (stress, team dynamics, ethics, values, etc.), you can select more probing questions.
- Make the questions “safe” – no matter what level of intimacy you’re seeking among the participants, you want to be sure that people will not feel like they’re being put on the spot or being judged. In part, this can be addressed by setting up ground rules (i.e. listen actively; respect differences, etc.), however you can also adjust the way you phrase a question. For instance, if you’re exploring your team’s dynamics, you wouldn’t want to ask, “Who’s not pulling their weight?” But, you could ask, “What if someone isn’t pulling their weight?”
- Inspire dialogue and sharing – thought-provoking questions, which might take a little more time to answer, can also stimulate an interesting discussion. If your desire is to open up conversation, make sure that there is not a right or wrong answer to the question.
- Mix would and should questions – questions can feel different if they are framed as a personal inquiry (what would I do if…) versus as a general inquiry (what should we do… or what should one do…?). When formulating questions, consider whether one format or the other would be easier or more comfortable to answer, and which would better promote a positive and productive discussion. For instance, “What would you do if you witnessed bullying?” and “What should you do if you witness bullying?” and “What should we do to respond to bullying,” are all likely to result in different conversations.
- Balance reflective and appreciative questions – some questions require that people think back on prior experiences. These can be a beneficial way to understand someone’s past, but that perspective ought to be balanced by asking appreciative questions, which focus on goals and on envisioning the future. If, for instance, you want to foster conversation about leadership techniques, you’d want to include prompts that evoke current experience, such as “I make employees feel valued by…” as well as those that promote forward thinking, like “I’d be a better leader if I….”
Facilitating with ease
Having great questions is most important when it comes to facilitating dynamic conversations. But having a good process is also key. Keep these quick tips in mind:
Transparency – before you begin a Q&A activity, be clear about your goals and intent for the conversation. This will help participants understand how in depth they should make their answer and what they, too, should hope to get out of the experience.
Simplicity – Whenever you’re facilitating conversations, on any topic, be sure to ask questions that are short, concise and easy to digest. Long-winded questions are harder to decipher and answer.
Repetition – repeating the question once or twice can give participants additional time to process the question and think of an answer.
Ground Rules –If you’re concerned that conversations might be emotionally charged, set a few ground rules to help guide your group. To increase buy-in on the rules, you might also ask participants to help generate the rules or vote to accept the rules you suggest. These might include:
- Critique ideas, not people
- Speak only for yourself; avoid generalizations
- Speak with respect
- Share the airtime
- No personal attacks
- Listen – make sure everyone feels heard and validated
- Only one person speaks at a time
- Use “I” statements
- Agree to disagree; disagree without being disagreeable
- Be positive and non-judgemental; open to new ideas
- Honor confidentiality
- Ask questions to insure you understand others’ perspectives
Take your time – Understand that some individuals, and some questions, might require more thinking time. For a rich exchange, don’t rush. Give participants ample time to offer a thoughtful response and respond to one another.
Armed with tips on formulating questions and facilitating discussions, you can look forward to stress-free conversations and getting to know people a little better.