Asking the Right Questions — A Guide for Effective Facilitation

At VWDS, we foster the knowledge exchange via several channels.
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About VW Digital Solutions

At VWDS, we foster the knowledge exchange via several channels.
One is the Design Day, where designers and non-designers are invited to share their expertise with colleagues in talks and workshops on the most diverse design-related topics.

During the last edition, I had the pleasure to facilitate a workshop focused on facilitation.
More specifically, on how to make effective questions that lead to effective facilitation.

What is facilitation?

The first thing we must understand is what we are trying to improve, what actually we are
trying to make effective.
A formal definition of facilitation would be:

“A highly structured meeting in which the leader (the facilitator) guides the participants
through a series of predetermined steps to reach a result that is created, understood,
and accepted by all.”

— Michael Wilkinson

Informally, it’s the moments we put different people together to discuss and achieve a
specific result. We may do it in person, using tools that can help us express our thoughts
such as pen and paper, whiteboards, post-its etc. Or remote, with collaboration tools that
allow people to express themselves and be understood.

In such context, the role of a leader, known as the facilitator, is crucial. Whether to control
the time and focus of the discussion, or to ensure that even the most shy people can make
their contributions to the discussion.

Importance of making the right question

The facilitator role can be played by several people, as soon as they know how to make
great questions and some other skills, but you must attend to the workshop to get this piece

As Michael Wilkinson, founder of the Facilitation Company, said, when you improve the
ability to ask questions, you obtain better answers.

And when you don’t make good questions, you may

  • Make participants feel bad or incapable for not knowing the answer;
  • Face excessive silence dominating the session;
  • Have a gradual decrease in group participation.

The result of that? Bad result from the discussion, non-productive meeting.

Types of Questions

To improve that, you need to understand that not all questions are the same.
You have the initial questions, the kick-off ones to break the ice. We tend to ask them at
the beginning of the session.
And the reaction questions, that empower the group to find their own solutions and
improve communication. These are from three different types:
Exploratory Questions: They are connected to the need to investigate information that
brings transparency to the group. Questions like:

  • “To confirm my understanding, the issue you brought up means [your viewpoint]. Did I understand correctly?”*
  • “What have you already tried?”
  • “Who have you spoken to about this?

Verification Questions: Remember that the more unfinished topics there are, the
greater the effort will be to revisit them later. Use this type of question to verify if that
discussion makes sense or if everyone shares the same perception. For example:

  • “Regarding this matter, we discussed (A), (B), and (C), and the results of the discussion were (X), (Y), and (Z). Did I understand correctly, or does anyone have something to add?”
  • “These points are quite interesting, but I understand that they deviate from the meeting’s objective, right? If so, we can park them in the parking lot so that we don’t forget about them. That way, we’ll address these points once we achieve our objective here or at another time.”

Conclusion Questions: They help to close the topic, as the name suggests,
concluding the discussion. Some conclusive questions that involve actions can be:

  • “Given what has been discussed, is there any action that needs to be taken before closing the topic?”
  • “What are the next steps for the subject at hand?”
  • “What needs to be done after this meeting?”

It’s worth noting that not every conclusive question needs to involve decisionmaking.

During the workshop, we had the chance to put these learnings in practice with practical and
interesting cases. After the cases, we even discussed the most common mistakes and how
to overcome them.

And being honest, this is the kind of thing that is great to know the name of, but the real
learning comes with practice.

I then invite you to observe yourself the next time you facilitate a discussion and take notes
on which types of questions you have the most difficulty with. I bet that this will help a lot on
your journey to improve and make your facilitation more effective.

This is an opinion article and doesn't necessarily reflect the Volkswagen Group view.