Guiding collaborative conversations and connections with probing questions

By Yulia A. Strekalova and Wayne T. McCormack

1. Yulia A. Strekalova (biography)
2. Wayne T. McCormack (biography)

How can we ignite discovery conversations and foster open, psychologically safe conversations among researchers from different disciplines who have not met previously?

This blog post is based on the findings of a workshop with pre-doctoral trainees (Strekalova and McCormack 2020), but is likely to have broader relevance. The workshop was structured around the initial steps of Strategic DoingTM (Morrison et al., 2019), a disciplined approach to facilitating complex collaborative projects. The conversations in the room progressed by addressing five key PROBE-Action questions.

Question 1. What personal expertise and interests are represented in the room?

When they introduce themselves, ask the participants to think about themselves as members of a community of practice who bring particular expertise that contributes to methodological knowledge shared by the members of their community. By listening carefully for the patterns in the tapestry of research interests, facilitators can then help to identify smaller groups for subsequent conversations.

Question 2. What resources are available and can be freely shared?

This question opens up an actual collaborative conversation. Two considerations are key in facilitating a discussion around resources. First, interests and sources can represent different types of assets, such as connections within and outside an organization, access to software, skills in using particular equipment and technologies, conceptual and methodological knowledge, and many others. However, these resources need to be available for sharing, and this is the second key message.

Question 3. What opportunities for collaboration emerge?

Once several resources are identified and shared, ask participants to think through opportunities to collaborate. Participants are encouraged to propose how two resources can be used together and how more resources can be added. The aim is to have a conversation around merging the resources identified by different people, exploring the qualitative connections that may exist among them, and labeling the emerging opportunity. Facilitators can also ask participants to consider three to four different combinations of resources. This step allows prospective collaborators to stay in the exploration stage, practice shared leadership and consider different combinations of available resources.

Question 4: What are the Big Easy collaborative opportunities?

Participants are then asked to evaluate emerging opportunities, by rating each collaborative opportunity based on its impact for their academic development and program of research, and also based on how easily it could be implemented. Facilitators use these ratings to trigger a new conversational activity. The starting point for conversations is where the same opportunity is given significance ratings of “1” and “5” by different participants. Such rating leads to a discussion about differences in assumptions and expected outcomes for the opportunity. This is followed by a similar discussion about ratings of ease of implementation, which provide an opportunity to discuss methodological assumptions around collaborative opportunities.

Question 5: What specific small action will take place in the next 14-30 days?

It is essential that the conversations in the room are followed by action. At the end of the workshop we ask participants to note a specific step or action to take in the next two to four weeks. We also ask participants to consider setting up a time for follow up conversations before leaving the room.


In conclusion, we would like to leave readers with a few questions to reflect, ponder, and comment on. What strategies have you used to guide collaborative conversations and connections? How are they similar to and different from the process described here? If you have not used a systematic approach before, do you think it might help you?

Morrison, E., Hutcheson, S., Nilsen, E., Fadden, J. and Franklin, N. (2019). Strategic Doing: Ten Skills for Agile Leadership. John Wiley and Sons: New Jersey, United States of America. See also the Strategic Doing TM website:

Strekalova, Y. A. and McCormack, W. (2020). How to start a strategic research conversation with a stranger. (Online):

Biography: Yulia A. Strekalova PhD MBA is Assistant Research Professor of communication at the University of Florida and Director of Educational Development and Evaluation at the University of Florida Clinical and Translational Science Institute in Gainesville, Florida, USA. Her research intersects health communication, adult education, and social interaction, and she is particularly interested in the role of communication in collaborative and experiential learning in virtual and interpersonal environments. As a trained coach and facilitator, she translates her conceptual knowledge and applies it to guide complex conversations around biomedical research and healthcare delivery.

Biography: Wayne T. McCormack PhD is Distinguished Teaching Scholar and Professor, Department of Pathology, Immunology and Laboratory Medicine, and Director of Doctoral Programs at the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, USA. Becoming involved in administration rather early in his career, he has been involved in virtually every facet of graduate program planning, curriculum development, recruiting & admissions, and administration. His research efforts are focused on education-related projects, including team-based learning, responsible conduct of research training, team science, and competency-based assessment of science PhD training.

8 thoughts on “Guiding collaborative conversations and connections with probing questions”

  1. Thanks for this post. I agree that “changing the mental model of what is possible” is essential if collaborations are to realise the synergies possible between partners. It struck me whilst reading your post that this tool (Doughnut Thinking) could perhaps supplement the approach you describe above: It encourages partners to think about what is possible now that they have come together, which is often very different and more transformative than originally assumed. I think, on reflection, more explicitly adding your focus on finding new ways to combine resources would significantly improve the doughnut discussion.

  2. Thanks Yulia and Wayne, great post!

    I was wondering, in these Corona times it’s not easy to meet in person. Do you have any experience with facilitating match making online? Or any ideas about it, do’s and dont’s?

    Best regards,

  3. Thanks very much for this post. It is a very helpful guide to enabling collaborative conversations. I am just wondering about Question 3 which seems to focus the conversation around resources rather than project ideas. I would have thought the resources are about the tools that we can bring to a collaboration, but are not necessarily what we would chose to collaborate on?

    • Great question, Paul. The focus on resources in that question is intentional–to continue building connections and involve resources of as many people as possible. This way no one is highjacking the project with one idea that they already have in their head.

      And as far the choice to collaborate goes, I view collaborative conversations revolving around three core questions: WHY-WHAT-HOW. Simon Sinek’s kind of bull’s eye:

      The WHY is usually decided before the collaborative facilitation takes place but may get clarified in the process when the core stakeholders are gathered together. I feel this is really the core of the decisions to collaborate or not to collaborate.

      The WHAT, to me, is where things get more real. This is where the conversations AND opportunities about resources are key, and the two are closely knit together. Once the resources are shared, we can start putting them on the table and see how they complement one another. As a facilitator, I encourage participants to try and incorporate resources of many stakeholders or team members at the table. This is frequently a tough part of a conversation because it forces people to consider resources of others, change their mental model about what is possible, and be creative.

      And the HOW is where everyone commits to a small action. And, well, that’s where the rubber hits the pipette–or not. This is also where the degree of participation starts to show up. Some people will become the core of a collaboration, some will move to the periphery (which could continue to provide the core with access to resources that were offered earlier), and some will choose not to collaborate.


      • Thanks very much Yulia for your comprehensive reply – I found it very helpful and practical in terms of how to facilitate these conversations in a research setting. I see now how a focus on resources might also avoid moving to the “project idea” too quickly, and enable a potentially wider set of collaborations to happen. I will check out the Simon Sinek video.

        Best wishes,


  4. Thanks for this informative and useful post. I’m interested in your experiences with the “Big Easy” discussion. This focus makes good sense to me as it gives people a chance to voice and work with what others have called the currencies that shape availabilty and interest in collaborative spaces. Do you have experience facilitating Big Easy discussions beyond initial ratings and lip service in support of collaboration toward agreements that challenge people to extend their boundaries around time and other resources? If so, I’d love for you to share some tips on skillful facilitation of boundary expanding conversations.

    • Kirsten,

      Yes! I have facilitated Big Easy discoveries for numerous teams. The “trick” is in subsequent steps of envisioning shared outcomes, agreeing on a pilot project, committing to *small* actions that would take place before the next check-in (in 7, 14, or 30 days), and agreeing on the date of the check-in. During this check-in, team members share experiences, learn from other another, and decide whether any changes to the original plan are need. I’ll give an example. One of the sessions I had was with about 50 psychologists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, social workers, and behavioral analysis all gathered by the goal and commitment to organize a comprehensive center for autism and neurodevelopment. The team came up with 5 Big Easy pilot projects that smaller workgroups decided to take on. One of these solutions was a respite care service for children with autism. At the 30-day check-in, the group reported that although they had the expertise organizing the service (from running summer camps for years), the city licenses and permits put this project way lower on the “easy” scale than they have originally judged. So, the workgroup decided to abandon this project and re-evaluation other opportunities.

      In this case, there was a follow through and important sharing of information. It also activated some of the connections in checking on the possibility of implementing this project.

      Another point, during the discussions, I remind participants that they should only share the resources that are willing and *free* to commit. In other words, they can’t commit someone who’s not at the table. They can’t commit assets that they need to ask permission to use. I usually repeat these reminders several times during the conversation and also ask follow up questions when a resource is shared to clarity that the asset is indeed available for sharing.

      This is a hands-on approach, but i have seen it work in so many situations. I am happy to talk more about it privately.



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