5 Steps to Asking Better Questions

Effective questioning is a key skill of successful development officers.  In addition to being the most efficient way to learn about someone, asking beautiful questions and actively listening to the responses evidences an authentic interest in the other person and helps to build trust.  All of which leads to increased gifts.

But while expert questioning is key to development success, I find many gift officers are not exceptionally skilled in this area.  This finding should not surprise, though.  We are not taught how to question in school.  We are not taught how to question in professional development settings.  We are taught to answer questions, not craft them.

Questioning, though, can be taught.  In their book, Just One Change:  Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana provide a blueprint for how to teach the art of inquiry.  And here are the steps you can use with your team to sharpen their questioning skills:

  1. A team leader develops a “question focus.”  This is a short statement that may be provocative and is designed to stimulate thinking and discussion.  The “question focus” is not discussed or explained, it is just a short statement to be used for this exercise.  For instance, you might come up with something like:  “Giving is good for the donor.”
  2. Team members develop questions.  Based on the “question focus,” team members are tasked with writing down as many questions as they can create.  There is no debating the merit of questions or answering the questions being posed.  Instead, everyone simply writes down all the questions that come to mind when thinking about the statement, “Giving is good for the donor.”  Any and all questions are to be captured and all statements need to be turned into questions.
  3. Team members improve their questions.  Next, each person assesses the questions they have developed.  Some will be written as open-ended questions (beginning with “why” and “how” for instance).  And some will be written as close-ended questions (can be answered with a “yes” or “no” for instance).  Team members are to rewrite each of their questions to make the closed ones open and vice versa.  The purpose here is to better understand that the way we phrase questions can elicit vastly different answers.
  4.  Team members prioritize their questions.  Instruct the team members to come up with their top 3 questions by order of importance.   Then, the group is to share and compare the priority questions produced by each person.  Ask team members why they consider these to be the most important questions. This process helps the participants understand that some questions are more productive than others.
  5. Team members reflect on what was learned.  Share the lessons that were learned with the group.

Gift officers are called to strengthen relationships with donors.  To do that work well, they need to be master question-askers.  If we start teaching this skill regularly, I am convinced that gift officers will engage more donors in meaningful ways and they will raise more money.


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