What? So What? Now What?

When reflecting on a shared experience or event, unstructured conversation is often our default mode for engaging participants. What happens is similar to different people describing an elephant. Each will respond from their unique perspective and vantage point. Though each answer is valid, it is also partial. For example, "it's a spear"; "it's a wall"; "it's a snake". All fail to describe the whole elephant. The helpful question framework: "What? So What? Now What?" (Reflective Model, Rolfe et. al. 2001). serves to focus contributions so all participants are talking about the same thing at the same time. The result is clearer, more focused and more complete group reflection.

Asking Good Questions is A Facilitation Superpower

Group Reflection Questions Framework: What? So What? Now What?

The What? So What? and Now What questions framework is a natural critical thinking sequence that helps to focus participants. Like the proverbial blind men and an elephant parable, so during a meeting, people will offer what they know and see from their own very specific and partial vantage point. Every person's perspective is correct. Everyone is describing the same elephant. But the focus of each person is partial, and taken alone may seem inaccurate or disconnected, and incomplete.

It is very helpful for this reason, when you engage your participants verbally, to help people answer the same type of questions so that at least everyone is talking about the same thing. Professional facilitators make use of natural critical thinking question sequences, such as this framework: What? So What? Now What?

  • What? Describe the situation, event, experience, document, etc. What do you notice objectively? What stands out for you about this topic? And what are your reactions to this topic? In the elephant parable, the answers would be the partial views such as, "I sense a wall', or "this feels like a rope", or "it is sharp like a spear". Asking: How do you feel about what stands out for you? then allows people to acknowledge their reactions, e.g., "Well, I'm uncertain what I'm looking at", or "I'm a little bit weary of what this may be", or "I'm excited. In our meetings, these latter type "What" questions are important, in that they give room for people to acknowledge their intuitive responses, their gut feel and emotions as well as their observations. If you've read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, you already know the importance of tapping the intuitive vein that comes from people's experience.
  • So What? Identify the implications and make sense of the information. Ask: So what sense are you making of this? What insights, hypotheses or conclusions are occurring to you? So what does this mean? So what is important about what we have just talked about, or read or viewed? The "so what" questions invite deeper thinking into the data and allow the group to make meaning of it, and begin to put together the different pieces so that the whole picture can begin to emerge.
  • Now What? Define possible next steps and a course of action. The question 'Now What?" is a converging question. It may ask the group to decide in one way or another. Or invite reflection on take-away learnings. It helps the group determine if it is ready to move on. Whether there is action that the group must undertake.

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