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ATD Blog

Have Questions? Use the Stop and Think Approach

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

During a recent webcast, a CLO shared the story of how she led her team through refreshing a strategy. She emphasized the many tools and techniques the team used to research the current state as well as external trends and practices. Team members collected extensive data and captured their insights related to refreshing this strategy. She mentioned how the team tracked S&T (stop and think) questions throughout the process.

We have used the term S&T questions in the ATD Forum for the past five years, to the point that many do what the CLO did (just mention it in general conversation without defining). However, for newcomers, there is always that quizzical look on their face: S&T questions? What are those?

Using questions is one of the most important skills for solving problems and conundrums. The Forum works to get better at getting better with helping members solve problems. We learned the term stop and think questions from Lynne Waymon at Contacts Count many years ago. It originated with her colleague Vern Schellenger in their work related to networking. And, as we started using it with the Forum, we shortened it from stop and think questions to S&T questions.

The essence of the stop and think question is rather simple and what the title implies, similar to the Socratic method. It is asking a question and intentionally not wanting an immediate response. It is a question that requires respondents to stop, think critically, and even conduct research and collect data to be able to respond accurately. It requires responders to understand underlying presuppositions to provide a response that is accurate and honest.

The ATD Forum uses the concept of stop and think questions to encourage groups not to rush to respond but, in fact, to reflect deeper on a topic. Another goal is to capture all questions the team has as they work through the problem-solving process and address them later, similar to the parking lot concept. This may be because of the need to reflect, to conduct further research, to keep from interrupting the flow, or because you do not have the time to address adequately.

Some general examples of stop and think questions include:

  • If you could fix this problem, what would the solution look like?
  • What is the biggest lesson learned in your role as _____?
  • What is the best idea you have found at this conference/meeting/event, and why?
  • Who are the stakeholders for this process, and why are they important?
  • What do you think are the top trends in _____ these days? Where is the field going?
  • How are the issues you are facing now different from the ones in the past?
  • Why are we doing this particular thing in this particular way?
  • What is the fresh idea that will help my organization stand out?
  • What if I approach my work in a completely unique way?
  • How can I tackle a long-standing problem that has affected my organization for a long time?
  • If this project is to make an impact on the way business is done, what are all of the ramifications for our employees?
  • How can we be more proficient in problem-solving methodologies that “affect business results?”
  • How can we make a better experiment?
  • How can we create a culture of inquiry?
  • How can we work together more efficiently?
  • What are the skills needed to be a catalyst for learning in my organization?
  • What can we do if there are no boundaries?

This exchange about S&T questions also triggered the overall importance of questions in creating a learning culture. An influencer in my practice, Chuck Appleby, introduced me to action learning. Michael Marquardt’s book, Leading With Questions, followed soon after.

A favorite quote is from Warren Berger in his book, A More Beautiful Question (2014):

"One of the many interesting and appealing things about questioning is that it often has an inverse relationship to expertise—such that, within their own subject areas, experts are apt to be poor questioners."


While providing a makerspace is critical for promoting the doing in experiential learning, facilitators skilled in debriefing the activities or the doing using questions use a tool like the Kolb Learning Cycle to pull much more learning from the experience. Additionally, there are examples of questions for a variety of different activities.

If you are in a collaborative group environment where everyone’s input is important to solving a problem or conundrum, the use of questions, especially for the facilitator, becomes even more important. For questions to be most effective in helping others learn, they need to focus on purpose (what and why), process (how), and outcome (results/so what?). For the organization to act on the information gained from questions, leaders and managers must listen to the answers and turn the data they hear into information useful for decision making. Just like the ability to use any other tool, for most of us, the skill of using questions must be learned and constantly updated. As Plato and others are credited with saying, “The right questions are usually more important than the right answer.”

How would you rate your inquiry capability as it relates to helping others learn and what data supports your assessment? How can you enhance your skill intentionally using stop and think questions?

About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

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How do we give quiet time to stop and think in a group? Perfect for a WFH environment to insulate yourself. In a physical classroom or meeting session chatter dominates. How does one inculcate disciplined time out?
Thanks for this question - and it is a challenge. Both aspects of this question are important - and need to be part of the design: having dedicated time for structured reflection AND requesting that it start with silence. After a time of silence have them share ideas as a small group or report out.
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