The setting: A meeting to resolve an important issue, about which there are conflicting points of view.
Scene 1: The facilitator has just explained the purpose of the meeting. WHAT IS THE QUESTION THAT THE FACILITATOR ASKS THE GROUP NOW?
Scene 2: The facilitator has just reviewed the agenda developed to accomplish the purpose of the meeting. WHAT IS THE QUESTION THAT THE FACILITATOR ASKS THE GROUP NOW?
Scene 3: A member of the group has just presented background information related to the issue to be resolved in the meeting. WHAT IS THE QUESTION THAT THE FACILITATOR ASKS THE GROUP NOW?
Scene 4: A member of the group has just presented a proposal to resolve the issue. WHAT IS THE QUESTION THAT THE FACILITATOR ASKS THE GROUP NOW?
HINT: The question is the same for each of these moments.
Here is the question: ARE THERE ANY CLARIFYING QUESTIONS?
The key word is “clarifying.” You can amplify the question by adding, “Is there anything about the meeting purpose/proposed agenda/background information/proposal (or other part of the process) that is not clear to you?” or “Are there any words or phrases that you do not fully understand?”
Asking for clarifying questions gives participants the opportunity to pause and reflect about what they just heard and to bring into the open any confusion about what was said.
BE CAREFUL: You are not asking “Do you agree?” Opinions will be welcome later. At this point the facilitator is simply making sure that everyone in the room is focused on the same issue at the same time and that the words used are understood by all.
Speed Bumps. Like speed bumps on a busy road, asking, “Are there any clarifying questions?” BEFORE diving into the pros and cons of an issue intentionally slows down the discussion. The question sends a clear signal that mutual understanding is essential to reaching a wise decision, and encourages participants to share any doubts about the meaning of what others have said.
Here are some examples of clarifying questions.
Scene 1 (meeting purpose). If the stated purpose of the meeting is to decide on the location of a new office, a clarifying question might be, “Does this mean that today we will not be discussing what new equipment will be purchased for the office?”
Scene 2 (agenda). A clarifying question about the agenda might be, “At what point in the meeting will we discuss the timetable for moving to the new office?”
Scene 3 (background information). After a presentation of the background information by the search committee, a clarifying question might be, “Was access by public transportation taken into consideration in your search?”
Scene 4 (proposal). Once the proposal has been presented, a clarifying question might be, “How does the rent for this space compare with the other sites you considered?”
The five-second rule. After asking for clarifying questions, the facilitator should wait for five seconds, scanning the room for signs that someone wants to speak. If necessary, repeat the request for clarifying questions. If there are no questions or after all the clarifying questions have been answered, the facilitator then moves onto the next step in the process.
The challenge. If the issue is highly-charged and participants are eager to express their opinions, some may interpret the request for clarifying questions as an invitation to jump into discussion. When this happens (and it will!) the facilitator must intervene immediately, remind the group that, at this moment, you are only asking for clarifying questions and that the space for open discussion will follow.
Who benefits? The practice of asking for clarifying questions helps the group in the following ways.
- Confusion caused by technical terms, jargon, acronyms and other language barriers can be eliminated.
- Misconceptions can be corrected early.
- Newcomers and others who might be reluctant to speak are invited into the conversation.
- Leaders show that they are willing to explain unclear ideas or concepts.
- Participants are better informed and more aligned in relation to the task at hand.