I recently had the misfortune to attend a training session that got a trifle out of hand. The trainer completely lost control of the activity and mayhem reigned supreme. Luckily it has not happened to me yet – but then I still can stop a soldier at fifty paces – but the spectre of it happening hangs over most trainers.

To begin with all was going smoothly, the information was interesting and relevant; there was controlled but exhilarating interactive activities, the group was attentive… so what went wrong?

Well we got to the “Question and Answer” segment where, sadly, it all fell apart. And it fell apart because the trainer had not mastered the art of actually asking the right kind of questions at the right rime and to the right people.

So I thought I might take a minute to share what I know about questioning techniques in the hope it may assist you and help me to remember that there is an art to asking questions!

If we understand the types of questions that we can ask and what the outcome of them will be, it may help us to use them to maintain control of the session. For instance a closed question requires a short sharp answer, it is looking for a specific answer – a piece of information and is used to check that learning has occurred. “How many distinct type of gestures can be used by a speaker?” There is a right and a wrong answer of course, the right answer is “Four” and the wrong answer is anything else!

But of course there is always an argumentative participant in any workshop or training session; the one who would question the authenticity of the answer or even the relevance of that question – so don’t pose this question to them! Or even to the shy person who is reluctant to participate, it does nothing to bring them out of their shell.

Use it to involve the garrulous one, the one who turns every opportunity into a five minute speech – by keeping their involvement short and sharp they should not get the opportunity to launch into “War and Peace” Volume 3.

Now the open question is just the type of question to avoid with these types. Being the opposite of the closed question it encourages people to develop their answer by including opinion, reasons and examples. – for instance “What would make a good topic for a Motivational Speech?” They can also lead to more detailed answers if you prompt for further information: “Why do people feel threatened by public speaking – What are some ways we can overcome that?”

The participant isn’t put on the spot because the answers can fall within a reasonable range. There is not one ‘right’ answer which is a reason why these are good questions to ask that nervous participant, and with gentle encouragement they can be coaxed into full participation.

Another way to target that nervous one is to ask a direct question. A Direct question is asked to a specific named participant, and is used if you want to get a person’s attention or to draw out a shy member of the group. And they have the benefit of being able to be asked in a number of ways. For example – ‘John, can you give us some examples of positive body language?

This does have the effect of allowing everybody else to switch off as soon as the name is mentioned. So – ‘If we wanted to include physical exercises, Marie, what changes would we have to make to this room’s layout?” Is probably a better method.

But my very special favourite is the technique called Pose, Pause and Pounce when the person’s name is said at the end of the question. Pose the question to the whole group; pause for a few seconds (Allowing everyone to think of the answer) then nominate someone to answer as in “What would be the benefits of improved listening skills ……? Fred?’ When people recognise this type of question is being used, they listen carefully to ALL questions – just in case.

An overhead question is directed to the entire group, and is used to stimulate discussion by challenging the group as a whole. As in ‘Do you think Australia needs a good apprentice scheme?”

The overhead question does have some disadvantages, if asked early in a session it can result in silence; so if no one offers an answer, pause for a few seconds to let the participants gather their thoughts and formulate an answer. Watch the audience, body language will often tell you when someone has an idea; then call on that person to reply. If the answer is correct, reinforce the participant’s answer by repeating it. If it is incorrect, rephrase the question, or call on someone else.

Another disadvantage is that Overhead questions allow the quick thinker or more talkative members to dominate the answers, and allows quieter or lazier members to sit back and let others do the work. If you notice that the same people are answering the questions, ask direct questions using the pose, pause and pounce method.

The third disadvantage is the one that the unlucky trainer recently found out about. If it is not kept under control everybody wants to answer it – at the same time. And if this is allowed it can escalate into an all out shouting match; or even worse the session breaks into private little discussions. It will take a strong and determined trainer to impose law and order if this happens.

If I want to involve the whole group I use relayed questions ~ they can be used when a question has not been answered correctly – for instance we may have asked “When do we ask Direct Questions … Jenny” but Jenny isn’t quite sure, we can relay it – “Can you help Jenny out ….. Joe?”

But I use it mainly when I have been asked the question from the group. Mary indicates she has a question and asks me “Why do we ask Direct Questions, surely it closes discussion down.” Relay it as “John, Mary wants to know why we ask Direct questions. What can you tell her?’. You can also give it as an overhead question and re-direct and relay it as in “The question has been asked, “What can a trainer do to improve their listening skills?’ What do you think Peter?”

At the session I attended when mayhem broke out, the situation was brought under control by some experienced members of the audience and the unlucky trainer was given a hard lesson in the necessity for him to maintain control of his training.

If it is of any consolation, it either has happened or has threatened to happen to most of us at some time or other. I learned the hard way to use my questioning technique to maintain the illusion that I am in complete control! Now that’s not a bad trick… is it? Answers at your leisure.

Michele @ Trischel

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