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That is not a Great Question?

There are numerous websites, platforms and programs offering advice, processes and steps on how to write and ask great questions and, there is no shortage of opinion on the ‘power’ of great questions. We all seem to want to ask great questions. Why? My view is that we want to be seen to be truly engaged and that we understand the parameters, framework and ramifications of the discussion at hand.

One of many definitions for a great question is, “a question framed in a clear, easily understandable language, without any vagueness that elicits further discussion or uncovers further questions. So, it would seem there are many, many ‘great’ questions. How often have you heard presenters and facilitators say, “That is a great question”. How often have you heard this when you thought that it was not such a great question? Why is this? My view is that presenters and facilitators respond in this fashion, often indiscriminately, to foster, acknowledge and sustain audience engagement. Herein lies the complication.

Let us unpack the context of a presenter fielding a question by initially responding with, “That is a great question”.

When a presenter tells someone that they have asked a great question, before actually answering or opening the floor for discussion, the engagement becomes cumbersome for various reasons.

Reason 1:

It provides insufficient information. Responding with, “that’s a great question” to all questions does not contribute to the dialogue, can come across as a platitude and be a waste of time.

Reason 2:

It is seldom impartial. The response seems to be evaluating or grading the question and making some form of value judgment. To avoid inequity the presenter now has to evaluate all questions in a consistent manner and decide which are ‘great questions’. Given variances in wording, body language and facial expressions, this is unlikely. What can, and does, happen is that the presenter tells the first few people that they had a “great question,” but then does not say it to the next person who asked a more difficult, ‘avoidable’ question.

Reason 3:

It can alienate people and be embarrassing. For example, the presenter does not say “great question” to a key client or decision-maker in the session. This creates tangible awkwardness.

Reason 4:

When the presenter only ‘grades’ certain questions, it can appear, pretty quickly, who the presenter wants to talk to and who’s questions they want to avoid.

Reason 5:

It can be seen as patronising particularly if a sensitive matter is being addressed. Responding to everyone with “that is a great question” can appear like the presenter is trying to curry favour, rather than addressing the issue.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not addressing intent here, rather the potential consequences of an indifferent practice. Invariably we do not want to intentionally convey anything negative by saying, “great question.” It is mostly, simply an inappropriate habit that inadvertently conveys unintended messages and draws negative interpretation.

Whilst attending an organisation development webinar hosted by Worldsview Academy recently, I heard a useful response to a question by the keynote speaker (Allon Shevat Link). 

“This is a great question. I say this because I have an answer for it.”

My request to everyone is to cease this regurgitative, destructive response behaviour. Repeat the question – yes. Restate the question in your own words – yes. Ask the ‘room’ to restate the question – yes. Ask the ‘room’ if they think it is a great question – yes!

Happy responding!


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