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The Answer Is Questions
Thursday, July 14, 2016
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You’ve probably heard the joke about trainers and questions. It goes something like this: If a participant asks you a question and you don’t have an answer, ask them, “Well, what do you think?” 

While this response is not appropriate for hiding a trainer’s lack of knowledge, asking, “What do you think?” is entirely appropriate in many situations. Questions are one of the most powerful tools in a trainer’s toolkit. Used well, they can do more to facilitate transformative learning than many other learning methodologies.

What Are Questions? 

Questions are phrases or words used to elicit answers. Learning professionals use them for many reasons, including to: 


  • Promote reflection. 
  • Support memory retention. 
  • Construct knowledge. 
  • Show respect. 

Questions are a powerful way to engage learners through their memories. People use their existing memories to make sense of the material you share in class, such as their personal experiences, their values and beliefs, and the ways they do everyday tasks.  

Questions can help learners recall these memories, examine them, change them, or construct new ones. For example, if I felt that it was good to perform a task in a certain way, a question may provoke me to critically reflect on my experience performing that task and see that it was not the most effective way to do it.

Memories are the building blocks of learning, and questions help people construct knowledge in a meaningful way. The key to powerful questions in an online or face-to-face situation lies in how you phrase them, the environment you set up to ask them, and how you respond as a facilitator to their answers. 

Phrasing Questions 

Pick up a book on how to be a trainer and you’ll see a big portion of it is devoted to how to phrase a question. These books look at things such as the difference between open and closed questions. 

For example, if you want to encourage a wide-ranging discussion, use an open-ended question rather than a closed one. An open-ended question is something like, “How do you feel about . . .?” A closed question such as “Did you feel good or bad?” provokes a single yes or no answer. 

These books suggest you avoid double-barrel, or compound, questions, such as, “When does workplace conflict occur and how can you manage it?” Single-barrel questions give you greater influence because people will only answer one of those questions—usually the one they like best. It’s helpful to ask only the question you want people to reflect on. 

These books also discuss word choice, which is valuable. They’ll recommend you avoid words such as why because it puts people on the defensive. Some even suggest writing a list of questions to ask. 

Phrasing questions to encourage people to reflect and explore knowledge is important. However, questions are only effective if people are willing to engage. That willingness can be profoundly affected by the environment. 

Environment 

The environment has a huge influence on how learners engage with your questions, and it can be powerfully affected by the emotions of people within the learning group. Although this is nothing new, recent neuroscience research has shed more light on how emotions affect learning. 

When people are worried or concerned, they tend to go into fight or flight mode, in which the brain allocates resources to defensive thinking rather than executive function. (Executive function refers to constructive thinking.) There are many things in a classroom that can trigger fight or flight. David Rock’s SCARF model is an excellent tool to explore this. He suggests that whenever someone’s status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, or sense of fairness (SCARF) is under threat, that person will go into defense mode. 

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It’s incredibly easy for any of these things to happen in a classroom. This is why train-the-trainer programs encourage trainers to build rapport with learners. Master trainers will also devote necessary time to build an environment in which learners build rapport with one another, too. 

If people are in defensive-thinking mode they will not engage constructively in classroom discussions led by your questions, no matter how good your list of questions. So before anything, the master trainer must work to ensure that the environment is encouraging, enjoyable, and respectful. 

This is something you need to work on before the learning event starts. However, once you have established such an environment, keep working to maintain it because this open environment can be easily disrupted by an unwitting response to a learner’s answer. 

Responses 

The master trainer needs to respond to learners’ answers carefully. This means being attuned to the words and body language we use when we respond.  

Drawing on David Rock’s SCARF model, do any words or responses we use threaten the learners’ status? Their sense of autonomy? Sense of fairness? Are there any cultural expressions or forms of nonverbal communication that could put people on edge? 

There is value in memorizing lists of what not to say or do in response to learners, especially when working in cultures that are unfamiliar to you. But don’t just rely on lists; study your learners, too. Watching how they react to your responses can alert you to more unique triggers. 

Avoid making value judgments when responding to learners. Instead, listen to what learners say and build on their comments to further discussion. Using learners’ comments to construct further questions validates the importance of what they say. This is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of prewritten lists of questions.  

If you lead with questions, the conversational momentum will generally carry you to your destination, although it will invariably follow a different route from what was planned in your list of questions. But that’s OK: You’ll still get there, and you’ll have given your learners a say in how they get there. 

If someone goes slightly off topic, redirect gently rather than calling the person out. Sometimes people need to go off topic to make sense of what they are learning—the brain is nonlinear. 

Think carefully about how your response to one learner may affect others. If someone responds to a question that has a number of alternative answers, and you say, “Absolutely,” someone else in the group with a different but equally valid thought may feel embarrassed to share it, or think her idea is wrong. Instead, use less judgmental language, nod your head, or simply thank them. 

Body language is important too. How is your eye contact? Is your posture open? 

Questions Are Powerful 

Some folks may look at questions as classic trainer cop-outs. They see them as an excuse for the trainer to shirk the responsibility of learning a subject or properly preparing, which in many cases can be the unfortunate reality. 

However, when used professionally, questions are a powerful tool that unlock learning by helping learners dig into their memories and construct new learning. Their success lies in how you create a comfortable learning environment, the way you phrase questions, and how you respond to learners’ responses. 

So now I ask you a question: Are you ready to tailor your learning to prove your ability and deliver the most engaging and effective training possible? If so, learn more about becoming an ATD Master Trainer.

Want to hear more of my thoughts on this topic? Listen to this podcast.

About the Author
Jonathan Halls is an author, trainer, and coach. He wrote Rapid Video Development for Trainers (ATD Press, 2012) and was a contributing author to Speak More (River Grove Books, 2012) and the ATD Handbook: The Definitive Reference for Training & Development 2nd Edition (ATD Press, 2014). He is author of the ATD Infoline, “ Memory & Cognition in Learning” (ATD Press, 2014) and has written numerous articles for T&D magazine. Jonathan is an ATD BEST Awards reviewer and has sat on the advisory committees for the ASTD International Conference & Exposition and TechKnowledge.

The former BBC learning executive now runs workshops in media, communication, leadership, and creativity. He is on faculty at George Washington University and facilitates ATD’s Master Trainer Program ™ and ATD’s Rapid Video for Learning Professionals Certificate program. Jonathan has been training, speaking, and coaching for 25 years in more than 20 countries. He describes his work as “at the intersection of media, communication, learning, leadership, and innovation.”
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