Instructor Resources

Tips for the LEADERS of the Discussion Group

   The Role of the Question. The ability to pose questions is essential for initiating good discussion. Asking any question is not the way to effective discussion. The way the question is phrased and to whom it is addressed is essential. The following hints on the use of questions should help to formulate them more effectively.

1. Lead-Off Question

 The lead-off question gets the discussion going, starts the group thinking, and must be phrased so that it does not mislead, confuse, or put people on the defensive. Questions beginning with the word "why" often lead to defensiveness.

Examples of poor phrasing:

  • Why don't parents do a better job of trying to understand their son or daughter during the college years?
  • Why do students do poorly in their first semester in college?

Examples of better phrasing:

What do you think can be done to improve communication between you and your student?

Many students tend to get poor grades their first semester in college. What factors do you think contribute to this?

2. Pull-In Question

The pull-in question encourages those who have not been talking to express their views. It is used when one or two have dominated the discussion or when a person may feel hesitant about stating his/her opinion. The question should be phrased so that it does not put an individual on the spot, offend, or call for only a "yes" or "no" answer.

Example of poor phrasing:   Do you agree with that?

Example of better phrasing:  What do the rest of you think about that?

3. Closed and open questions

This is related to the way the question is phrased and what kind of response is called for. Closed questions invite a simple "yes" or "no." They are used when you want agreement or disagreement with what is said, but do not want the other person to say much. Open questions invite elaboration and explanation. In general, open-ended questions will stimulate more discussion and sharing of opinion.

Closed questions:

Example: Do you feel this is fair?

Closed questions usually begin with:

has, can, will, shall, do, is, who, where

Open questions:     

Example: How do you feel about this?

Open questions usually begin with:

what, when, how, why

4. Directing questions

Scatter questions: These are phrased so that they stimulate thought and provoke all in the discussion to comment. They may be used as lead-off or pull-in questions, are addressed to no one individual in particular, but to all, and in such a way that all want to speak.

Single-shot question: This is aimed at one individual. It may be used to draw the quiet person into discussion or to get one individual to elaborate.

Example: Bill, with your experience, what would you say about the situation?

Redirecting Questions:

At times when you're asked a question you may not want to answer immediately, you can redirect the question to someone else in the group. This also helps generate thoughts and opinions from the group.

Ricochet question: You are asked a question, such as "How would you counteract apathy among students?" Rather than give an answer, you might ask another member of the group: "Mr. Smith, you've been in college, what do you say?" This is used to stimulate participation and group reaction before your own view is given. Once you (the "expert") give your opinion, it may tend to stifle the views of others who may disagree.

Boomerang question: You are asked a question but have been doing much of the talking to this point or you want to have the individual questioner clarify his/her statement. You may reword the question or ask a question back rather than answer immediately. For example, you are asked, "Why should the campus newspaper accept advertising from beer distributors?" A boomerang question might ask the individual, "Why shouldn't the campus newspaper accept ads from beer companies?" or "What is the purpose of the campus newspaper?"

Directing and redirecting questions in these ways is not avoiding the issue; it is a means of evoking a full response from those you want to speak. If other members want to hear your response and you feel a direct answer is useful, by all means, answer directly. These techniques should be used sparingly and with tact.

6. How To Respond to Questions:

  1. Be helpful in understanding the issues--answer clearly and honestly when you respond. Don't give a "canned" or programmed response. Listening responses and acceptance responses show interest and understanding without necessarily indicating full agreement or evaluation.

    - Don't be afraid of short pauses or silence. People need time to think about what they want to say.

    - Don't interrupt the speaker. Give him/her your full attention.

    - A nod of the head gives affirmative motion of understanding.

    - Casual remarks such as, "I see," "Yes," "That's an interesting point," "That thought struck me also," may be helpful.

    - Echo: Repeat one or two words another has just spoken. The tone of voice and manner of repeating is important in this response.

    - Mirror: reflect back your understanding of what is being said. "You seem to feel that . . ." "It seems to me as if . . ." Let the person verify that you have heard him/her correctly.
  2. Your non-verbal behavior communicates as much as your words and the tone of your voice. The following factors will enhance your ability as a communicator:

    - good eye contact (neither avoiding the speaker nor staring at him/her).

    - a natural, but attentive posture. If you're too relaxed, you'll appear uninterested; if you're too rigid, you'll come across as tense and nervous. Communicate that you're with the person by facing him/her directly, perhaps leaning forward slightly, and being a comfortable distance from him/her.

    - nervous gestures (such as playing with your hair, frowning, or glancing at your watch) are distracting when someone talks to you.

    - use encouraging gestures (nodding of the head, smiling, etc.) to help the speaker communicate more easily and to let him/her know you are hearing them.
  3. Do not contend or dispute; answer simply and honestly. Be hopeful of agreement. Answer with confidence that the conversation will be beneficial. A general rule is to safeguard your own view, never flatly deny the other person's position, rarely concede his/her opinion without qualifications or elaboration, and always be able to distinguish the meaning of the viewpoint you affirm and hold.

    You may always say, "I don't understand," but if you understand and agree or disagree, say so with a simple "yes" or "no."