Leading the Witness: How Asking Questions as a Trainer Can Limit Learning and Reduce Trust

"Asking questions can be a means of establishing authority, fulfilling leadership functions, and ensuring effective learning. In fact, asking questions is probably the most subtle power you have for controlling people. The person who asks questions always controls the conversation... if we could discipline our minds to ask questions instead, we could lead any conversation to wherever we wanted it because the other person would still be wrapped up in thinking what he or she wanted to say next...One of the rights you have as a trainer is to ask questions and expect answers. This is why question-asking is such a powerful tool. It challenges and avoids confrontation at the same time."

Mitchell, Garry, The Trainer's Handbook: The AMA Guide to Effective Training, Amacom, 1998, p 63.

If you deliver training, odds are you reduce participants' learning and enthusiasm through manipulative questions - like the ones Garry is advocating for -and that you're unaware that you're doing this. I label Garry's approach to questions as manipulative because they require that the trainer ask questions for the purposes of guiding a conversation in a particular direction without disclosing that direction in advance and giving participants a choice about whether they want to go there.

My colleague Sue McKinney and I explored this subject in detail in "The Facilitative Trainer" chapter of The Skilled Facilitator Fieldbook. Today I hope I can help you identify how, if at all, this is happening for you, and offer a way of using questions that avoids the negative consequences above.

When I began my work as a trainer, I often resorted to subtly manipulative questions to achieve my goals in a training session. For example, I'd ask questions I already felt I knew the answer to in hopes that participants would get the "right" "Ahas". Trouble was, this was significantly limiting learning for everyone in ways I couldn't see.

Chris Argyris' research and our client work lead me to believe that this kind of questioning gets people defensive; they don't know why you're asking the questions, they guess, and their guesses often contain negative judgments about you or the training design. All this reduces your credibility and their learning.

I used the following four methods to dramatically reduce this kind of manipulation and increase my effectiveness as a trainer; I continue to use them with colleagues to improve our training work.

~ Identify whether and how you use questions manipulatively. Record and revisit your own training work and/or ask to be observed as you train. Assess where you were being transparent about your reasoning for asking your questions - and where you weren't.

~ Alone and with others, explore what beliefs led you to do this. For example, do your questions indicate you believe that the learners won't "get it" without your "guidance"? Do your questions indicate that there's only one "it" to get, and you know it in advance? These assumptions and beliefs won't be "nice" or "pretty", but until you discover them, you'll continue to act as if they were true, and get consequences you and your participants don't want.

~ Be transparent about the change you're trying to make. If you decide you want to change your approach, let clients, participants and colleagues know, and ask for their feedback- especially during the training.

This last step has turned out to be simply essential for us. When I've tried to avoid doing this, change has either taken much longer or didn't happen at all.

What are your reactions to my thoughts here? I invite you to email me with your thoughts.

2005 Matt Beane

Matt Beane is an associate with Roger Schwarz & Associates and co-authored a chapter of the recently published "Skilled Facilitator Fieldbook: Tips, Tools, and Tested Methods for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers, and Coaches," available on Amazon.com and via other quality booksellers.

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