Training Participant: “So when do we just break down and give them an answer?”
Me (the facilitator): “When do you think is the right time to break down and give them an answer?”
I was demonstrating the “boomerang technique” – not answering my learners’ questions directly but instead throwing the question back to the group.
Why are Boomerang Questions Useful?
I find boomerang questions useful for several reasons:
1) They allow other learners to share their experiences and expertise and get involved in the conversation.
2) The allows the facilitator to assess what the learners know and if they’re “getting it”.
3) Learners often have better answers rooted in a more familiar context for everyone in the room than the facilitator can give.
4) Asking a boomerang question demonstrates that the answers don’t always need to come from the front of the room (the facilitator) and offers an opportunity for the learners to take ownership over the learning.
5) Boomerang questions give the facilitator time to think, especially when you don’t have a good answer off the top of you head.
Boomerang questions remind me of a game called Questions Only from the improv show “Whose Line Is It Anyways” (check out a sample here). It’s a fun game, but as you can see from this link, even professional comedians who know they’re supposed to respond to questions with questions struggle to do it consistently.
It’s a simple concept, but it requires a conscious effort and some practice.
How do Participants React to Boomerang Questions?
Sometimes the reaction of participants can be amusement, and I’ve received such tongue in cheek responses such as: Didn’t your mother ever teach you to never answer a question with a question?
Sometimes the learners’ reaction can be frustration: You’re the teacher (or facilitator or expert or supervisor), just tell me what the answer is.
More often than not, the response is excitement. People like to be able to share their knowledge, experience and expertise. I’ve also found that when someone in the class offers an answer that I might have given, his fellow learners are more apt to give the idea credibility. The answer has come from “one of their own.”
Boomeranging in Order to Correct Errors
Sometimes the responses offered by the audience are incorrect. As a facilitator, you can’t let incorrect answers go. But it’s important to be mindful of how you correct the error.
During a diversity training, I once had a participant answer a question by telling me that breaking the law and stealing was ok in certain circumstances. Once again, I boomeranged the comment to the other learners: “What do you all think about that?” The participant’s co-workers, who had an established relationship with this gentleman, offered some counter opinions.
Boomeranging in One-on-One Supervisory Sessions
One final note about The Boomerang is that it’s an extremely effective tool in managing staff. One on one meetings with employees are one of the most important (and in my opinion under-utilized) training opportunities.
Checking in with direct reports on a regular basis and leading with questions is an incredible needs assessment opportunity. And answering direct reports’ questions such as “What should I do in this situation?” not with your own answer but rather with a simple “Well, what do you think you should do? What have you tried? What have you done in the past that has worked?” can help direct reports own their challenges and begin to solve their own problems (with your gentle, probing, questioning guidance). Asking questions and teaching direct reports to solve their own problems can free managers up to work on bigger picture work.
Leading with questions and resisting the temptation to throw out your own answers and solutions can be a challenge. As a trainer, facilitator, supervisor, it’s natural to want to be the “expert”, but using boomerang questions – in large-group or one-on-one settings – is a powerful tool in helping the learners own the learning.