Facilitative Questions: an innovative skill to facilitate change and enable discovery

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As professionals, a big part of our job is to influence change. One of the tasks we perform on route is information gathering. With a goal in mind, we assume we can pose the right questions to get the data we think we need.

But sometimes our questions miss the mark and we end up gathering incomplete or flawed data causing our outcomes to fail. Or the questions unwittingly cause resistance because they’re not interpreted by the Responder as we intend. Or we pose questions biased by our needs and unconscious beliefs and miss better answers that would lead to different, possibly better outcomes.

WHAT ARE QUESTIONS AND WHAT DO THEY DO?

Have you ever wondered why the questions we use often don’t achieve what we want them to achieve? Here’s why:

  1. Conventional questions seek to extract information, usually to enhance the Questioner’s outcome. Due to the unique word choices and specific goals of the Asker, they can miss the real answer that’s sometimes lodged within a Responder’s unconscious.
  2. Conventional, or information-based, questions are biased: by the Questioner seeking and listening for a specific type of response and sometimes ignoring an accurate response that doesn’t quite fit expectations; by the Responder who is directed by the bias in the question that sometimes misses a more accurate response that would show up with a differently worded question.

Information-extraction questions are the standard and, due to the Questioner’s goals and biases, may not address the full fact pattern, knowledge, beliefs, or circumstances of the Responder. Obviously, this causes biased outcomes and restricts data accuracy. Indeed, standard questions are flawed by the assumption that ‘accurate’ data is being retrieved. But it’s not.

What if it were possible to formulate a question that would:

  • extract accurate data,
  • influence change,
  • promote efficient implementations, buy-in, and sales cycles,
  • avoid resistance and bias, maintain personal integrity,
  • lead the Responder to discover their own possiblity unconscious – but accurate – answers?

Certainly restricted or partial information is not always the outcome when good questions are posed. But sometimes, especially when the questions are posed by sellers, leaders, or coaches to help someone through change and discovery, conventional questions are inadequate.

INFLUENCING CHOICE

I’ve studied the brain for ways to impact unconscious choices since I was a teenager. I was particularly curious if there was an unbiased way into the brain that would help people uncover their own answers, based on their own beliefs, history, and mental models.

In 1988 I read Roger Schank’s The Creative Attitude which discusses how our brains store data in memory that can only be discovered by using exact words that get sent to the exact brain circuitry where they’re stored.

I already knew that we unwittingly listen through biased ears. (Read my book WHAT? ) Was it possible to use questions to unlock the unconscious drivers, the beliefs, the values, the emotions at the core of all decisions so Others could find their own answers? How could questions be formulated to get directly to the exact part of someone’s brain where their answers were stored amidst their 100 trillion neural connections?

Using my knowledge of the mind->brain connection, I began experimenting with new forms of questions that would avoid bias altogether and lead people to the place in their neural circuitry where their answers reside. I finally came up with a form of question that leads Others to a specific place in their brain, the exact circuits – congruent with their values and beliefs – to gather accurate data and facilitate unconscious choices.

[Note: I’m going to walk you through an overview of Facilitative Questions that I’ve been teaching in corporations for 25 years. They are quite a bit different than conventional questions, so hang with me. And I’m always available to discuss it. For this essay, I’m introducing the concepts. The actual learning takes some time as there are wholly different components than conventional questions.]

NEW THINKING INVOLVED: INFORMATION AND SYSTEMS

During the process I recognized two main factors that were fundamental to my thinking re what questions can actually achieve beyond gathering data, and how to use them differently to facilitate decision making, behavior change, and choice: systems and information.

Systems: To encourage success in any sort of change (buying, change management, coaching, etc.) we must recognize it as a systems problem: since change involves some sort of insult to our internal and unconscious system/status quo, any change must include buy-in of everything within the mental models, the history, the beliefs – the system (Systems Congruence) – that will touch the final solution, or any change will be resisted or fleeting.

Systems Congruence is actually the principle of homeostasis: systems maintain equilibrium; change without buy-in puts the system out of balance and will be rejected. No change can happen until all of the unconscious systems elements that will touch a new solution know how to continue functioning in accordance with its own beliefs and mental models, despite the change. The system is sacrosanct. Unless balance is maintained, people end up resisting change.

Information: due to the biased focus of conventional questions, they may not discover the Responder’s full fact pattern. Here’s the problem with information sharing and extraction used in several industries:

  • Sellers gather information to ‘recognize’ a buyer with a ‘need’ they can pitch  to – often leading to false assumptions and interpretations by the seller – when they can use the same time to actually find and lead prospective buyers through to new decisions based on their own criteria and avoid rejection;
  • Coaches, consultants, facilitators and leaders seek to cause change by directing questions to answers they think the Other should look for – biased by their assumptions. To that end, they share advice, stories, research, plans, etc. all based on influencing; all risk causing resistance; all miss the opportunity to direct the Other’s brains to their own answers that will eschew resistance and enable permanent change.
  • Decision analysts and tech developers use their own biased curiosity to gather, weight, and analyze needed data, but extract potentially inaccurate information when it’s possible to evoke accurate answers by formulating differently worded questions.

But in all cases, conventional information-gathering is biased by the beliefs/needs/goals of the Questioner, risk alientating the Other, and overlooks the possibility of finding directing the specific synapses that lead to good answers and the real possibility of permanent change.

Without addressing the gooey, human stuff that makes up the foundational beliefs that created, and maintains, the problem to be solved; without helping the Other discover where they unconsciously store their best answers, it’s quite difficult to help people through to real change.

FACILITATIVE QUESTIONS

Eventually I developed a new type of question: Facilitative Questions. They 1. assume that the system (person, group) itself has the accurate answers, 2. are directional devices to specific parts of the brain that will clarify and capture the appropriate, most relevant, unconscious content from a Responder’s memory while matching its unique systems criteria.

Facilitative Questions enable people to find their own answers and maintain Systems Congruency. And here’s the one that’s most annoying to Influencers: They shift the onus of responsibility from the Asker wanting to direct answers to trusting the Responder has the answers. In other words, outsiders – sellers, coaches, therapists, friends, clients – are facilitators who enable Others to discover their own Excellence.

But they are complex, outside conventional thinking, and can’t be formulated without additional learning. [If you’re interested in learning how to formulate them, get the Learning Accelerator or my MP3 series where I use, role play, and explain them for sales, coaching, and fundraising.]

Facilitative Questions:

  • use specific words in a specific order to reach the specific place in the brain that stores the best answers;
  • put the Responder into Observer/coach/witness to reduce any natural biases and expand brain search;
  • open new choices within the unconscious of the Responder to make it possible to fix discover their own excellence;
  • construct new awareness, new choices, new behaviors based on unconscious belief/values-based criteria;
  • are non-manipulative;
  • offer change agents a new skill to engage the right people, address the right problem, and manage change without resistance;
  • eschew information gathering;
  • eliminate resistance by eliciting commitment and buy-in at the very beginning of any project or initiative; 
  • enable Responders to simultaneously uncover the unconscious core of the problem and create the necessary change on their own.

Here’s a simple example of the differences between conventional questions and Facilitative Questions:

Information-based question (conventional question based on the goals, word choices, word usage of the Asker): Why do you wear your hair like that? This question is an information gathering question based on the needs of the Asker. Also, all ‘why’ questions cause a Responder to defend current choices and underlying beliefs. If the question invades the Responder’s beliefs, the response will be biased and resistive. There’s a good chance a conventional question would gather incomplete or inaccurate data.

Facilitative Question (sequential navigational question used by a facilitator to direct Responders to the exact brain circuitry where their unconscious information is stored): How would you know if it were time to reconsider your hairstyle? This question leads the Responder to a larger set of choices, all without manipulation, bias, or data gathering, and with no potential threat to the current system. The questioner as the facilitator becomes the change agent/servant leader.

Used and formulated most effectively, Facilitative Questions follow the route all brains take to properly translate incoming words and send them to the best circuits for accurate translation and change. These cause no resistance.

Specifically, buyers can recognize issues that would help them make decisions, assemble the right people, and instigate buy-in to ready them to buy; coaching clients can be led to their best path to permanent change and eschew resistance; doctors can elicit natural, permanent behavioral change in patients rather than push to try to cause change, etc.

By enabling Others to discover their own unconscious path we not only help them find their own best answers but act as Servant Leaders to permanent change and decision making. If they’re not formulated accurately, they can become quite manipulative – the exact opposite of what they were designed to do.

In the example above, the question How would you know if it were time to reconsider your hairstyle the words ‘how’ ‘know’ ‘if’ ‘time’ ‘reconsider’ are all carefully placed and chosen to be resistance-avoidant, and directed to prior decisions while considering change and obligations. And most important, it doesn’t attack current or previous choices.

FACILITATING CHANGE

The big idea here is the switch from seeking or pushing specific data to being a neutral navigator or Servant Leader to lead a Responder toward a potential willingness to change while maintaining Systems Congruence. After all, there really is no way for an outsider to ever know the full extent – the connections, history, values, complications, etc. – of how someone’s internal system is set up. The differences are important:

  • from seeking and pushing content to achieve the influencer’s goals to facilitating the person’s own discovery of beliefs, values, identity issues and systemic drivers, and eliciting (not causing) change;
  • from manipulation to Servant Leadership;
  • from pushing to being accepted as a change agent;
  • from bias and resistance to participation and creativity;
  • from directing change and creating resistance to discovery, buy-in and participation.

To use Facilitative Questions requires a different sort of thinking and a different level of control. It requires knowledge of systems, listening for patterns, and brain sequencing. Most of all it requires that influencers change their goal to truly serve the other, to help initiate and manage change from within – not with any content or directive from you, but true buy-in.

Obviously your intent will shift as will your success: your sales, initiatives, implementations, and projects will be easier, shorter, and less costly. You’ll just have a different type of control: from attempting to have the answers to being the true leader that elicits congruent answers.

What would you need to know or believe differently to be willing to add a new questioning technique to your already superb questioning skills? How would you know that adding a new skill set would be worth the time/effort/cost to make you – and your clients – even more successful?

Sharon-Drew Morgen
I'm an original thinker. I wrote the NYT Bestseller Selling with Integrity and 8 other books bridging systemic brain change models with business, for sales, leadership, communications, coaching. I invented Buying Facilitation(R) (Buy Side support), How of Change(tm) (creates neural pathways for habit change), and listening without bias. I coach, train, speak, and consult companies and teams who seek Servant Leader models.

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