Shaping Questions for Powerful Check-in and Check-out Processes

Check-in and check-out processes are not just frivolous time wasters in our meetings.  If they feel that way, something is probably  missing.

Wicked questions help shape powerful processes. The shaping of questions in a thoughtful, purposeful and intentional manner increases the likelihood of them being powerful. This is the second post on powerful questions, the first one contained  general thoughts about shaping powerful questions.  This post focuses on check-in and check-out – processes, so fundamental to the work we engage in and setting context for what we do.

The greater clarity we have about the purpose and intention of the overall work and the process we are choosing to use, the greater the likelihood of crafting a question that does exactly the work we intend it to do.  Check-in and check-out processes are used very intentionally and in all kinds of settings.

People who come to an Art of Hosting training are often introduced to check-in and check-out for the first time. There are many forms of check-in and check-out.   If we’ve done our work well, these processes will have been experienced in a variety of ways – through the use of words, body, music and using varying lengths of time from a couple of hours or more to a 10-15 minute process.

Many people leave a training seeing the possibility of bringing a check-in process to their team or meetings but wondering exactly how to do that well.  Using the same question all the time eventually wears out its appeal so it becomes important to hold attention and keep things meaningful and relevant to bring new questions at least periodically.  It keeps things fresh.  Which brings it all back to purpose and intention.

The Use of Check-In  in Trainings

In an Art of Hosting training, we use a check-in process as we arrive and settle in together.  Usually this is planned as a  longer process, wanting to dive  deep together as we set the context and container for the whole three or four days we are gathered.  We intend to begin well as we arrive, meet each other and understand individual and collective intention for this training.

Not only do we use good questions for this initial check-in, many of us also engage in the fundamentals of good circle practice so we set our container well and with depth.  A little teach on circle, the use and power of a talking piece and the agreements of circle set the stage well for the work we want to do with each other.  Our greatest and best resources on good circle practice come from our friends Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea at Peer Spirit.  When we do this well, it is common for unexpected and beautiful things to arrive in our centre from the hearts, minds and souls of participants.

Often times check-ins on other mornings are simply to bring us into the space together.  Sometimes we don’t even use words but invite a physical movement or embodiment check-in.  Sometimes it is music.  It is whatever fits well with the overall theme and flow of the day and brings us fully into the space.

Check-ins also do not need to be done with the full circle.  Sometimes we use dyad or triad interviews or conversations to allow the time for people to go deeper in small groups.  Sometimes we might invite people into a walk with each other.

The Use of Check-Out in Trainings

Just like we use check-in to bring people into the space, we use check-out to bring some closure or convergence to a day or a multi-day process.  Doing a check-out doesn’t necessarily mean bringing everything to a nice tidy close but it could.  Check-out provides an opportunity for good reflection.  Where are we at, individually and collectively?  What is alive and present in the room?  Is there anything in particular we need to be paying attention to as we revisit our design for what’s next?  What is resonating for people?  Are we in a groan zone?  Are we eager and excited for what’s next?  Was there cool learning that took place that we want to provide people the opportunity to reflect on more deeply?

In a check-out we may want to presume in a certain direction, plant a seed – “What is shifting for you as a result of your experiences in this day?” “What spark are you carrying forward?”  Or we may want to take a little pulse – “What’s alive for you now?” “What one thing has your attention?”

And, like the check-in process, sometimes we are not wanting to use words.  Sometimes we use dance, embodiment, other physical movement, a series of claps or other imaginative ways to close our conversation or our day.

A good thing to remember, please don’t confuse depth with length of time of a process.  I’ve been part of many processes where there was not a lot of time available, but depth was achieved because of the care that went into thinking about purpose and intention and crafting a wicked question to guide the process.

What About the “Real World”?

This is one of my favourite questions – how to practically apply what’s been learned about check-in and check-out to “real world” situations, like my two hour staff meeting, my three hour partners meeting, my team that only wants to get right down to business, with a group of high powered individuals, senior leadership in an organization or in government?  Especially for folx who say, “that dance check-out was really nice but I could never do that with my group.”  And, of course, you wouldn’t want to go back to your organization and use some of those things that seem a bit too out on the edge.  But when you first try to use these processes, sometimes the very notion of a check-in or a talking piece is “out on the edge”.

Look for openings and invitations and step into practice in the places where greatest opportunities exist to try even some little new thing.  Sometimes bringing a check-in and check-out process to your meetings or your team is the simplest way to begin to practice on an ongoing basis and it can be done without great fanfare.

The Use of Check-In  in Ongoing Practice

It can be a relatively simple thing to begin a check-in process with your team.  “We spend a lot of time in meetings.  It would be great if we all felt these meetings were a relevant and meaningful use of our time and I’m not sure we all feel that way right now.  I would love to hear us each speak to this question: If we used our meetings really well, what would it look like and what is the difference it would make to us as a team and our work?” 

“The purpose of our meeting is….  Before we dive into the agenda, it would be great to hear a bit of what you are observing in your world that relates to our topic this morning.” Or, pay attention to what is the best question that can refocus your team or your meeting on what is important and link people’s passion or interest with the topic at hand.  It is amazing how a few minutes doing that can shift the entire feel of a meeting as people pay more attention.

Work the question you want to start with.  Will it generate the kind of thoughtfulness you are hoping for?  If not, how can it be nuanced – or sometimes completely thrown out in favour of a better question – to do the work you intend it to do?

How much time do you have for your check-in?  With a long time frame of meeting – a day or more, you have more time to begin well.  With a shorter meeting – as little as an hour or two – you can still begin well, just be conscious of the nature of the question you are asking.  The better you begin, the better the quality of the meeting, usually with better results in a shorter time frame.

The Use of Check-Out  in Ongoing Practice

Short and sweet often works for check-outs, particularly when you are in a short meeting. Once you get used to using check-in and check-out, meetings somehow don’t feel complete until you do a short round of check out.  Simple questions targeted at what you are looking for at the end of the meeting.  Curious about what is sitting with people now?  Ask.  Curious about what people are taking away?  Ask.  Curiosus about what is percolating?  Ask.  Noticing that things or people feel a bit unsettled.  Invite.  Not everything needs to be wrapped up with a nice tidy bow.  If you invite the rumblings that you sense, thank people for sharing.  “Thank you.  Good to know where we all are.  And not unexpected, given what we discussed/where we are in our process.  Thanks for sharing.  It is appreciated and important.”

Bringing in a Talking Piece

While I’m sure there could be an entire post on using a talking piece, there are some simple ways to bring one into your meeting.  For groups that are not familiar with this process and for whom it doesn’t feel quite right to do the full blown teach just yet, I will often say something like, “I want to hear from everyone in the room and to do that offer out this item (something I have with me, something in the room, something symbolic for the group, sometimes a bracelet I take off my arm, a pen in my hand, whatever is readily available) as a little talking piece.  This is just so we make sure we hear everyone’s voice.  The beauty of it is that when we have it, it is our turn to talk. When we pause, it is truly a pause and not an invitation for someone else to jump in.  It means we can think about whether we are truly finished or if we have a bit more to say.  When we don’t have the talking piece, that is our invitation to listen and listen well.  Because you know when you get the talking piece you can take a minute to think about what you want to say.  I find it changes the quality of the listening and changing the quality of the listening changes the quality of the conversation.”

I know from my own experience, that when the talking piece is not used often their are people who choose to stay quiet even when you invite all voices and then it is harder to re-invite their voice.  And it is amazing at how appreciative people become around using a talking piece.

Conference Calls

Yes we can, and do, use check-in, check-out and virtual talking pieces in our conference calls.  And, yes, it works well there too – shifting attention and quality of our experience.

The main points are the same across these different categories: purpose and intention, a question related to purpose and intention that you’ve worked a bit to make it wicked and powerful because you’ve sat with it to sense into whether it will do the work you want it to do.

Where are your openings and invitations?  The more you find them and accept them, the more you will find yourself in a practice that no longer feels risky but now feels fundamental for powerful process. The more the shape of your world will have shifted and before long you may find yourself not just an experimenter but a practitioner.

Shaping Powerful Questions

One of the most asked questions at, and after, any Art of Hosting training is about the questions.  Developing powerful questions is a crucial element to creating the conversational space we are seeking.  People are hungry for greater understanding of how to create questions, especially after they’ve tried a check-in, check-out or cafe experience that didn’t quite have the intended result or impact.

Sometimes powerful questions appear, almost like magic.  We know they are powerful because we feel them.  But usually they are developed and shaped with great care – and often co-created with others.  It is not unusual for a whole planning meeting (and sometimes more) to focus just on question development for a process – which may seem a bit crazy until you’ve had the experience of well formulated questions in comparison to sessions where questions have not been shaped with the same care.

This post contains general thoughts on the shaping of powerful questions.  Later posts will focus on specific processes where questions are used, like check-in and check-out, World Cafe, Open Space, Appreciative Inquiry, Dyad and Triad Conversations and Deep Sensing Interviews.

Three Dimensions of Questions

In an Art of Hosting training in South Dakota this past July, was the first time I heard the three dimensions of powerful questions, coming from World Cafe work and community of practice.  The three dimensions are: scope or scale of the questions, assumptions in the questions and construction of the questions.

What is the scope of the question you want to ask?  If the scope is too big it may shut down conversation (how do we create world peace?) but you might want your question inspirational enough to allow people to gaze higher than they might otherwise (how have you created peaceful moments for yourself/your team/work/family? How could you do that more often or in a different setting?)

People tend to rise to the assumptions made in the questions so it is good to both notice the assumptions being made in the question and also to be intentional about them so the work is more appreciative and aspirational in service of purpose and intention and the greater work being tended to.

In considering how we construct questions, there is a continuum that flows from less powerful to more powerful.  The less powerful questions are ones that can be answered with a yes or no.  Moving along the continuum, more powerful questions begin with when or who.  The next level are questions that begin with how or what and even more powerful questions sometimes begin with why. I say sometimes, because sometimes the why questions also entrench people in their point of view if asked in such a way they invoke defensiveness.  Ask why questions in ways they evoke curiosity and then you’re onto something.

There is a timeliness we generate when we put the word “now” in our question.  “What you noticing now?”  “What has your attention now?”

Purpose and Intention

A key factor in question development is what is the purpose and intention – of your gathering, your meeting, the particular process the question is intended to shape or provide context for, the question itself?  What is the work you want the question to do and then what is the simplist way to ask the question? Purpose and intention is so central to question development that we go back to it again and again.

Language and Shaping

I like to use as much present and active language as possible.  Instead of asking, “What did you learn from that experience?” you might ask, “What are you learning from that experience?”  There is a supposition built into the question – that the learning is active and ongoing. If that fits the purpose and intention of the space you are wanting to create that’s great.  If not, a question targeted to the learning and conversation you want to encourage would be better.

If you are wanting to move in a certain direction, then create questions that presume in the direction you want to go.  “What is the shift you imagine will happen once you leave here and begin to apply what you’ve learned?” This question presume you want a shift and that you will put something into practice post the training.  For some it will inspire their imagination. When it doesn’t inspire someone, they will usually say so without detrimentally affecting the responses of others who are feeling inspired.

It is also okay to take a pulse of what’s happening in a group or process without assuming a direction.  This is particularly helpful when you want to sense into where a group is at, what you need to pay attention to or what might be simmering under the surface.  It is good to have people in a group name their experience sometimes without trying to shift into a particular direction.  The information that surfaces is then helpful in shaping design or process informed by what is present in the room or group, tracking always toward the purpose or intention of why you are in this conversation or work.  Sometimes diversions are necessary to ensure we get to where we ultimately want to go. You could ask a question like “What’s sitting with you now?”, “What question’s are percolating?”  Sometimes I might even ask, “What tension is arising in you at the moment?” but only if I am really sensing tension in the room, wanting to surface what’s there but not create it if it isn’t there to begin with.

Nuances in Question Development

Slight nuances in a question can lead to very different conversations. This is why we often sit with the questions we have drafted and imagine the kinds of responses a question might evoke, noticing how changing the question slightly could generate a different conversation.  Some examples: “What are you noticing in your environment right now?” compared to “What are you noticing in your environment that relates to this project?”  or “How have you been since we last gathered?” compared to ” How has the last gathering impacted you and your work?”  The first version of these questions is far more open ended while the second version is more targeted to purpose and intention.

Co-Creating Questions

It is hard to create really powerful questions all by yourself.  It is much more fun and generative to co-create with others what the questions could be.  Then when a nuance is discovered that makes the question more powerful, the whole group feels it, not just one person.  Collectively we know we’ve gone to a new level of depth.  When we co-create the questions we can start in the ball park of what we want to do and, through the conversation, discover what those nuances are that increase the the capacity of the conversations we are inviting to be meaningful and relevant to the participants we have engaged and the purpose for which we have engaged them.

Powerful questions can shift the shape of an individual and their pattern of thought, a team and its dynamics, an organization and its usual ways of thinking about things.  Imagining they can even shift the shape of the world….