Facilitators’ Notebook: Using Powerful Questions

You might remember Gregory Stock’s “The Book of Questions” (1985) which was a small book of 200 short, provocative questions that you can think about yourself, or use at dinner parties or other social situations. I have used it in the past to create rather disruptive questions to ask participants in workshops on ethical decision-making, as the questions in this book deal with values, beliefs and life (in most cases they are a bit too strong for the workshop room, so adaptation is needed). But the notion of using purposeful, thoughtful, thought provoking questions to lead into a topic is an alternative to simply presenting the topic, or a statement and asking people to discuss it (where do you start and where does thi go?)

Here is a question sequence adapted from “The Book of Questions” that I have used in the past to get people thinking about ethics and values (today with my more asset-based thinking, I am not sure I would use this, but offer it as an example). First question: If you had a cockroach in your kitchen, would you kill it? Second question: If you had a butterfly in your kitchen would you kill it? Discussion: What is the difference between a butterfly and cockroach? Why does a beautiful creature merit more compassion than an ugly one? What values are we using here to drive our decision-making? Where do these values come from? etc (roughly adapted from Question 25) We could just give a lecture on ethical decision-making. However, people might be more personally involved in the topic when you start with questions like these.

I read recently about a new set of question cards that been produced for dinner parties, that sounds like the questions are a little less controversial but equally engaging. (If I can relocate the URL I will add it in comments.) You can look for other sources of good questions, or good stubs, or kinds of questions. You might never use the question the way it is originally stated, but it might give you ideas to adapt. You are looking for an unusual question, one that makes people stop and think deeply, get some energy out of it, and say, “Now that is a good question!”

Or you can have your group come up with the questions. After lunch energisers each day might be one of their own questions. For example, after the introductions at the beginning of the workshop, once everyone has given their biodata, ask the group to stop for a moment and think about what they heard, about the group, the things people have done, their goals and aspirations. Task them to each think up a thoughtful, thought-provoking question that they would be interested to ask the group that gets a vibrant discussion going. Maybe share a couple of examples. Then have them write them on a card and collect them (they can be anonymous if they want). Each day, or at intervals during your workshop, ask someone to pick a card and give the group 10 minutes to have a wonderful discussion using their own powerful questions.

3 replies
  1. Gillian
    Gillian says:

    The questions I mention in the blog are called “Table Topics” from Party Confidential. Vanity Fair says it is a “set of 135 cards with clever questions.” Sounded interesting…(www.hsn.com)

  2. Gillian
    Gillian says:

    Yesterday we went to a small ski resort in France for the day. At lunch, sitting in the crowded restaurant, my 4 year old son said, “Hey look!” I looked at the chip he was holding and off the end jumped a small cockroach, onto the floor and disappeared. He smiled, ate his chip, and happily finished off the plate. It just goes to show that this particular ethical decision-making question might not work for everyone.

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