Thursday, November 18, 2010

Convergent Questions Have a Role

OK, so that last post took a while to get to the point. This one will be different. I’ll give you the main ideas right up front, so you can decide whether you’re interested in hearing more:

• Convergent questions are a great way to nail down the facts.
• They are like the "up or down vote" that Congress has been talking about, in that they enable you to get an answer and move on.
• Because of those strengths, they have some limitations.
• Chief among those limitations is the tendency to stop the thinking of others, particularly creative thinking.
• What are the implications for teaching, and for a facilitator who wants to get discussion going?

Convergent questions nail down the facts. Do you watch David Gregory on "Meet the Press?" He has grown significantly in his ability to challenge his guests, and much of it has been based on his use of convergent questions to "cut through the bull." He asks a political candidate exactly what programs should be cut, and the candidate goes into the spiel about how priorities will be set. So David asks again, narrowing the question even more, "OK. So can you name one example of a program that you think should be cut?" Whether the candidate answers or not, the question focused the dialogue on specifics - a really good way to get at facts, or to determine that they are missing.

Convergent questions act like the "up or down vote" that Congress has been talking about. Debates about issues, discussions about complex topics, and graduate theses all have something in common: they can easily go pretty far afield. In each of these situations, there should be room for that kind of dialogue. At some point, though, we want to move to closure or action. Enter convergent questions and the "up or down vote": are we going to do this, or not?

In “calling the question,” convergence works by stopping the far-ranging thinking. We are asked to vote, to decide, to choose. Yes, I agree with your thesis, or OK: I want the blue one, or Yes, we’ll change the assumptions about health care. Case closed; issue decided – at least for now. And we move on to another challenge.

So, if we are trying to make a decision, and if we have already examined our alternatives, it may be time for that convergent question, time to get the parties involved to literally converge on an answer.

On the other hand, when we begin with the convergent question, we may produce the opposite of convergence; that is, we may polarize. By polarize, I mean invite individuals or groups to take positions, positions which they will now focus on defending. The open discussion and mutual problem-solving may now be over. Fisher and Ury, in their Getting to Yes, a best-selling study of negotiation a couple of decades ago, identified this dynamic as counter-productive, although not always avoidable.

What are the implications for a classroom or for the facilitation of a learning process more generally? Let me address that question with a story.

I attended a presentation recently in which a colleague facilitated a discussion of training methodology among a group of about 20 peers, most of whom were experienced instructional designers. Even under the best of circumstances, a presentation to peers with similar experience to one’s own can be one of the most challenging to make, surpassed only by the openly hostile audience. When brought in as the “expert” among novices, one can take the role of the diagnostician, asking specific, convergent questions, and presenting, or leading the group to a conclusion. Not among peers, though, and probably not in a session intended to be “a sharing of experience.”

What happens when the facilitator in a peer-oriented session asks a lot of convergent questions?
Example 1
Take a look at the evaluation form in the back of the handout before we start. What do you notice about this evaluation form that’s unusual?
Participant thought:
Hmmm….looks pretty straightforward. Lots of questions. Not that different from what I use, except maybe for these questions about “my participation.” That might be what this facilitator is after. But I’m not sure that I want to be the guinea pig here…why doesn’t the facilitator just make the point?

Example 2
Let’s start with your design process. How do you go about defining what you’ll do in your session?
Participant thought:
That could be a loaded question. We may be on the same wavelength – starting with the outcomes & results I want; or this facilitator may be setting us up for a whole different approach. I don’t want to be the one who becomes the counter-example here.

This line of questioning is not going to generate a lot of discussion. A shame, because discussion is what the facilitator really wanted. There was no hidden agenda. The facilitator just didn’t know how to tap into that reservoir of experience in a way that would open up the floodgates of ideas. Instead of engaging my interest in the topic, the facilitator invited me to play a game of GWIT: Guess What I’m Thinking.

Alternatives? Sure – for another blog post. The key point here is that effective questioning is a function of multiple variables – the situation, the nature of the relationship between facilitator and participants, and – most important – the part of the process involved. And yes – other kinds of questions work better for some parts of the process. To be continued…

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