Asking the Right Questions: Skills for Savvy Instructional Designers

Asking the Right Questions for Savvy Instructional Designers

As an Instructional Designer, you have to be more than a waiter or waitress taking orders and delivering training plans. Asking the right questions consistently will help you provide the best possible results.

However, knowing what questions to ask can be challenging at times. Especially if your subject matter expert (SME) or stakeholder is not a strong communicator. If you are intentional about it, asking the right questions can help you:

  • Collect information
  • Clarify expectations
  • Identify concerns

In this article, we are going to identify some of the reasons why questions are so important. As well as explore scenarios where asking the right questions can improve your effectiveness.

Why Asking the Right Question is so Important

There are a lot of different aspects to the role of an instructional designer. The Harvard Business Review published an article called The Surprising Power of Questions, describing questions as tools for “fostering smoother and more effective interactions, strengthening rapport and trust, and leading groups toward discovery.”

Asking questions can help you better understand stakeholders’ problems before you offer a solution. However, finding relevant questions to ask takes practice. For example, when networking, the questions you ask can determine the type of relationships you build. Unfortunately, not everyone is capable of sharing information clearly. In those situations, asking the right questions at the right time can make a big difference.

Questions regarding past attempts to resolve a problem can also drive better business results. Imagine a scenario similar to something I experienced recently.  A company looking to provide Microsoft Excel training for their internal support team reaches out to you for a proposal. They’ve held several virtual training sessions in the past with disappointing results.

Asking questions about what the team needs to know reveals there are only a few specific functions needed to complete client projects.

In the end, you would probably decide tutorials or video walkthroughs were a better solution for this specific problem. Instead of virtual training sessions, these tools would serve as a reference guide employees could use again in the future.

In this case, asking good questions can provide a better solution for the organization. Meaning your clients are happy, and you continue getting work.

Using Questions to Collect Information

Motivational interviewing is a method often used by Psychologists to get to the root cause of an issue. Specifically, “The interviewer listens and reflects back the client’s thoughts so that the client can hear their reasons and motivations expressed back to them.” By utilizing this empathetic questioning style, you can uncover the true source of problems or pain points and help your client design the right solution.

Rephrasing a client’s answers in the form of clarifying or reaffirming questions is an effective tool to help you understand the barriers to successful change. In a business environment, this translates to:

  • Understanding why stakeholders want to resolve a specific problem
  • Clarifying the impact of the problem if left unresolved
  • Allowing time for reflection on past attempts to solve the problem

Asking The Right Questions To Collect InformationIn the previous example, using motivational interviewing was another important piece of the process. Asking open-ended questions starting with “What,” “How,” and “Why” provided the necessary information to get the job done.

Starting with motivational interviewing techniques can help you get to the heart of a problem quickly. Spend time crafting your own motivational interviewing questions and begin working them into the discovery phase of your design process.

Over time you will see which questions are most effective in helping assess client needs.

Confirm Understanding by Using Questions

Questions can also confirm your understanding of the information shared throughout the design phase of a project. Sometimes SMEs are not the best communicators and struggle to provide information in plain language. Unfortunately, this does not relieve you of the responsibility to deliver the right solution.

While a summary of information is a way to reflect, adding a follow-up question is vital. After reflecting on key ideas, the right question will allow your SME an opportunity to add more detail. For instance, after the kickoff meeting, provide a summary and ask, “Is that correct?” or “Did I miss anything?”

As an Instructional Designer, effective communication around timelines, deliverables, and project details is critical to your success. Fortunately, you can prevent most miscommunication by providing summaries and asking clarifying questions. Everyone involved in the project is on the same team.

So it is in the group’s best interest to ensure you have as much information as possible. If you have a question, don’t hesitate to ask.

Getting Critical Feedback with Questions

As your stakeholders and SMEs review your training design, they should feel comfortable sharing their concerns with you. However, as you may already know, not everyone will be eager to provide the critical feedback you need to deliver the best possible solution. In some cases getting buy-in from others will require you to ask the right questions to draw out hidden concerns.

Getting Critical Feedback By Asking The Right Questions

Like the questions used when confirming understanding, getting feedback is usually done after submitting a design document. Asking if anything will keep stakeholders from giving you the approval to move forward is a good start.

Asking questions can help you pull back the curtain on any hidden or lingering issues. This will ultimately give you a better shot at addressing everyone’s concerns.

Questions like “Do you have any concerns about moving forward?” or “What other additional questions can I answer?” can help you get more information.

Providing feedback can be uncomfortable for some stakeholders and SMEs. Steering the conversation by asking the right questions will encourage them to share. Having every bit of relevant feedback at this stage can determine whether or not your training hits the mark.

Final Thoughts

As Instructional Designers, you probably already know asking good questions is a part of the job. But it isn’t always as simple as reading through a list. Asking the right questions at the right time takes practice.

To start the process of improving the questions you ask, write them down. Then as you incorporate each question into your conversations, track the answers you receive. During interactions with stakeholders and SMEs, use summaries and questions to clarify your understanding before moving forward.

Finally, when submitting your training design, ensure there are no unspoken concerns. Asking the right questions is an essential skill to master as an Instructional Designer.

Being intentional about asking questions and evaluating their effectiveness will help you improve. Start by writing a list of questions you would like to include in your next meeting with SMEs or stakeholders.

What questions do you find most helpful when working with SMEs and stakeholders? Have you taken the time to write them down and track their effectiveness? Your experience matters; share your thoughts with me!

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Calvin Dantley

Calvin Dantley is a big fan of deep dish pizza and winter sports. Over the past 16 years he has enjoyed developing sales enablement tools and facilitating leadership development workshops. Calvin loves a good campfire and his favorite color is green.

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Calvin Dantley is a big fan of deep dish pizza and winter sports. Over the past 16 years he has enjoyed developing sales enablement tools and facilitating leadership development workshops. Calvin loves a good campfire and his favorite color is green.

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