Universal Probes For Small Groups

Public leaders often have to lead small group discussions. Here is something that might help.

A lot of my work involves leading conversations. Sometimes that is because I am researching how people perceive an issue. Other times I am leading a session designed to convey content — how to use social media, ethical campaigning, public leadership.

I am preparing for a four-day candidate training seminar that is an initiative of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. I’ve been part of this from the beginning, and it is one of the most rewarding things that I do. (Sorensen’s ethics-based candidate training course is the national model for such things and is highly effective.)

Part of the course involves small group discussions, and as we were preparing the agendas for those, I was erminded of a set of “universal probes” that I have been using for years. These are highly useful questions to ask as a follow up (after almost any initial question) and they typically unlock conversation and allow people to think quite deeply about the issue at hand. They are deceptively simple.

I did not come up with these. Chances are, any good focus group moderator will give you the same, or a similar, set. These are just how I articulate them. They arose out of study with one of my mentors, Rich Harwood, and work alongside of two imprtoant colleagues, John Creighton and Dave Moore.

Here are the questions:

  1. What do you mean by that?
  2. Say more about why you think that?
  3. What would that get you?
  4. What would that look like?
  5. And that leads you to think . . . ?

See? Simple. But ask them, and see what they can unlock. You might be surprised.

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

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