What to do When Questions are Not Safe

Powerful questions spark great dialogue. Just a few well-chosen, highly-polished questions can stimulate amazing exploration of a relevant issue for a group.

But sometimes posing a question can also pose something else: a threat. In societies where a person with authority routinely uses questions to evaluate, interrogate or humiliate a subordinate, the use of even a polite, well-phrased question may come across as intimidating. The net of safety built up by a teacher’s smiles, sharing, and setting the stage can suddenly unravel when she sets a learning task to the class that ends in a question mark! I have experienced this in a variety of cultures: a seemingly innocuous request for the participants to share their experiences and opinions on a given topic suddenly brings a hush into the room and uncomfortable shifting of eyes and chairs.

So, I tried an experiment. Instead of asking the question as a question, I rephrased it as a gentle command, like this:

Example 1:

Change “What dreams do your village people have for their futures?” to “Tell me about the dreams your village people have for their futures.”

Example 2:

Change “Why are some families more successful in raising their children than others?” to: “Tell me about what families do who raise their children successfully.

That seemed a subtle change, but then I looked at my local co-teacher who was suddenly grinning widely. “Oh, that’s much easier for us,” she confirmed. The learners no longer felt they were being tested for a “right answer” and they were emboldened to give their own insights. Sometimes, it helps to add, “In your opinion, tell me…” Other such subtleties may add further safety. In any case, be sure to keep the topic open by not implying that there might be a given right answer that you’re looking for. Gently support the sense that all answers are welcome and that as a group good solutions will be found as you explore together.

In some cultures, questions carry significant social risk. As the classroom relationships deepen, it may eventually become possible to begin introducing discussion topics with an actual open question. But stay alert for the wide-eyed look of panic or a sudden glance away by several learners. You can gently return to, “Tell me…” until safety again reaches a level adequate to bear that scary question mark.

[Learners in action at one of Jennifer's sessions.]

Question for you:

What experiences have you had in your teaching where you gave extra effort to making questions safe?


Jennifer Giezendanner is a Certified Dialogue Education Practitioner, and can be reached at jegiez@yahoo.com.  She presently works for OneBook, a Canadian development organization, as program manager and training consultant, focusing on projects in Asia. 

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