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Asking Questions

An important skill for meeting leaders is that of questioning in order to draw out ideas and information and to involve participants in a meeting. Leaders must probe to get at ideas, support participants when they make contributions, and listen attentively as people talk.

PROBING involves asking speakers:

The most common probe is "Why." Avoid using this on personal matters, of course, since the answer might be embarrassing. Try not to threaten anyone when asking them to supply more information. Just ask for clarification—"Do you mean…?" and then, "What would be the consequences of that?" Asking how a suggestion relates to other issues under consideration is another useful probe. Also asking respondents to make generalizations from their statements helps others to understand their positions better.

Leaders asking questions cause meeting attendees to respond. Don't ask so many questions, however, that the meeting resembles an interrogation. Plan your questions in advance and keep them at a minimum, since the hope is that attendees themselves will ask some questions. If leaders question too much, people are talking to them, not one another, which is the idea of a discussion. People need to talk to each other to agree or disagree with a point, to add information to a statement made, or to raise a question themselves.

Questions are important in getting attention, maintaining interest, and receiving feedback. When leaders ask questions, they can determine the comprehension, understanding, and agreement of participants. Don't ask questions when you already know the answers. Ask the attendees questions that call on their experiences or their opinions. Make your first ones easy to answer, just to get the information-sharing ball rolling!

Goal

Questions to Ask

To get information

Begin with "what, where, when, why, who, how, and how much."

To broaden discussion

How would you do that?

How would that help the problem?

What things should we think about?

To verify information

Where did you hear that?

Have you tried this?

To test assumptions

What would happen if we tried this?

If we do it differently, will it work?

To voice your opinion

Would this idea work?

Would you be willing to try this?

To reach agreement

Which of these plans do you like?

Which idea can we all support?

Do we all agree this is what we want?

(Lippincott, 1994, p. 129)

SUPPORTING is a nonverbal as well as verbal skill. When leaders encourage participation from shy or silent persons, praise people for words or actions, or relieve tension with humor, they are supporting participants. Making eye contact, smiling at people, and focusing discussion on someone's response to a question tell attendees that they are doing fine and their contributions are appreciated. Another way to support groups as they participate in meetings is through listening.

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Good listening means that leaders should be able to repeat back everything others have said, plus understanding their feelings about the subject. Check with others by saying, "What I heard you say was….Is that right?" If a lot of emotion came out with the words, reflect the emotion: "You really sound frustrated!" These steps make people feel heard, along with the open-forum effect of speaking candidly within a group. When others are speaking, don't play with a pen or fidget and try not to interrupt them, even though you may sense what they are about to say. Being attentive tells folks that what they're saying is important—it's worth listening to.

"I try to listen….Yeah, I think I do that!"

Kristen, in Accounting, says, "Time is money," and does ledgers while people are in her office because it saves time. "They must have time to burn!" A junior accountant scheduled a meeting to discuss standard costs that he thought could be reduced. Kristen had a better idea, so she jumped right in and set everyone in the meeting straight. Expecting thanks for helping with a new idea, Kristen was surprised when her boss said, "Kristen, sometimes people feel you don't listen to them." "I think I listen," Kristen mused, wondering how to get better at this.

Listening is active, not passive! Face speakers and make eye contact, bending or leaning toward them slightly. Take notes or have a Recorder take notes as you dictate, and wait three to five seconds after people finish before speaking, which assures them that no one is waiting anxiously to talk. Follow the content being discussed, smile when something is humorous, nod in agreement from time to time. Listen noncritically; hear speakers out and check for understanding before discussing their messages. "I'd really like to hear more about the plant meeting. Do you have a few more minutes?" "I hadn't thought of doing it that way. Guess we should check with your area first. Any other ideas we should know about?"

Clarify what people say to be sure exactly what speakers mean. Ask questions or rephrase an unclear statement and ask if the restatement is correct. "In other words, people are quitting because of this problem?" "Normal turnaround has been 48 hours; you're saying it now takes longer?" While listening, begin putting what's said into your own words, so that the meaning of it is clear. Then give speakers a chance to correct misunderstandings. "I guess I missed your point. You don't dislike the new policy, but you do think implementation time and cost will be excessive. Is that closer to your meaning?"

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