Asking Compelling Questions in Gracious Space
Einstein was once asked, “If you had an hour to solve a problem, what would you do?”
He replied, “I’d spend the first 55 minutes defining the question, after that the answer would be obvious.”
Most of the problems we are trying to solve today in our communities and organizations take longer than an hour, but Einstein’s advice still holds true. Defining the question is one of the most powerful and important leadership tools available today – and perhaps one of the least expensive. There are many ways of asking questions, so how do we distinguish the average question from one that is truly compelling – one that results in the obvious, positive action that Einstein suggests?
First, beware the “poser questions.” These are statements or opinions that masquerade as a question simply by adding a question mark or a lift in your voice at the end, such as: “You’re not really going to do that, are you?” Poser questions betray themselves by their intent, which is usually to wield power or blame, exert opinion or lead the conversation in a particular way. “Why can’t you get this project right?” or “Does anyone else think this idea is heinous?”
There are many types of questions that are helpful, but which can also somehow be limiting. For example, we often ask questions in order to clarify information or to satisfy our own curiosity. These questions are in service to ourselves. They are useful, but typically transactional in nature – “What time does the meeting start?” “How can I learn more about the class?” “What did it feel like when your hair was on fire?” These questions serve a purpose, but do not generally guide the conversation into new territory.
Then there are questions that are in service to another person. These are usually open-ended questions to which the asker cannot know the answer, and are intended to help another person reflect or problem solve. I once had a dilemma and shared it with my boss, who asked a strangely useful question, “What color is it?” He had no investment in the answer; the question was intended to help me see the issue from a new perspective. When I reflected, the answer was “purple,” and from there I figured out which qualities of purple were evident in my dilemma and how that new information could help me see a resolution.
In our work with communities and organizations, the Center has been using Compelling Questions to foster social change. Rather than simply trying to steer the conversation or gain information for the parties involved, a Compelling Question promotes leadership and deep learning. A Compelling Question is formed by discerning the inherent (and sometimes opposing) values within the issue, and then crafting a question that incorporates, bridges and builds on those values, with enough possibility to create direction and enough specificity to create traction.
At a recent all-day Gracious Space training in Missoula, MT, participants applied their Gracious Space skills to identify and prioritize community issues. Then they crafted Compelling Questions that promoted serious dialogue on these issues. For many, it was the most difficult part of the day, since the task required using many different abilities simultaneously: hearing different viewpoints, collating and synthesizing information, and wordsmithing the values into an authentic, inviting and compelling question. Some of the examples include:
- Traffic: How can the city of Missoula develop a traffic plan that integrates safe, shared roadways with quiet and clean neighborhoods while maintaining efficient, cost-effective traffic flow for commercial and residential use?
- Medical Marijuana: How do we ensure honest access to and distribution of medications (that alleviate suffering) while protecting the safety, well being and peace of mind of the community?
- Diversity: How do we engage students, parents and administration in providing a safe, comfortable and respectful environment that honors and accepts diversity in all its forms?
- Environment: How do we improve clean air, water and land while providing jobs, economic development and vehicle recreation, allowing for private property rights?
At the end of the session, Mayor John Engen arrived to observe and hear the questions participants had formulated. The mayor complimented and endorsed Gracious Space, and said too often we create “grumpy space” which is not productive. “You’ve really gotten to how to pose the question – I don’t know how you did that – but the way you’ve asked the questions makes me want to answer. They are respectful and provoke in me the desire to care for your issue.”
In public discourse, the mayor said, “We need to tone down the rhetoric so we can each have some degree of power and a piece of the outcome. I’d like to see people be more thoughtful in their remarks; to go from being ready to defend to asking questions as if they really want answers. When you go home at the end of the day and your family asks what you did, it’s nice to answer, ‘We did honesty and inclusivity.’”
Compelling Questions can also foster storytelling that leads to relationship building. When people share stories about their lives, they connect in a deeper place and bring out more of what matters to them.
Another form of Compelling Question is to pose a progression of inquiries that offer an initial invitation and build toward taking more risk. This process is often described as “creating a relational field.” The relational field is the energy we develop when we are in a group. Asking a series of Compelling Questions can help tap into, open up and build this field of energy so it can support the work of the group.
In Gracious Space, the moments of discomfort when someone shares an experience of pain, anger, despair or accusation can be an opportunity for the group to shift to deeper work. Using a Compelling Question in this instance can help the group probe and address an underlying truth or tension.
Too often we default to the lowest common denominator for rules engaging our dialogues, and our conversations become polarized, stalled or confrontational. But across the country in a wide variety of gatherings, people are learning to use compelling questions in expansive ways to open up their thinking and learn together.
One practitioner recently told us, “Public discourse tends to spiral down, but with Gracious Space as a methodology, there is a constructive outcome that unfolds. People really listen rather than just get their say in. There is such polarization today, it’s upsetting to not be able to reach across the table. Gracious Space is a way that can happen effectively and that’s very encouraging.”
Hosting community dialogues using inviting, Compelling Questions is greatly needed in our communities at this time. We believe Compelling Questions are a tool for social change.