Powerful Questions

It’s the day that my friend and colleague Quanita and I will be beginning to host a weekend retreat. It’s QT. It runs Friday – Sunday. This time there will be eleven of us. From Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Cincinnati. And me from Lindon, Utah. This time, we are seven men and four women. It’s deliberate curious wander together which has a way of resetting the internal compass for most. It’s a gathering that I love and that has become even more deeply enriching each time.

I’m thinking a bit, on the day that QT begins, about some of the questions and topics that I’m bringing to the retreat. That I want to learn about. That I want to hear and share stories about. Wisdom. Connection. Funny. The relationship of inner to outer. The relationship of now to the long arc. Dreams. Ritual. Superpowers. There’s a big list. I know that we might get to two or three. But I’m not worried. It isn’t scarcity of time. I know that these are all connected. And, I continue to learn that it’s the energy, the vibration of the stories shared, the entanglement of our curious wander, that really moves and changes us.

I’ve decided to change some of my topics into questions, writing them on post-it notes. I know that what moves an interesting topic to a kind of communal engagement is a question. And I love feeling the questions come through me. I’m just playing so that I can share them with Quanita to see how they align with her interests and sense of the group coming. Hmm…

On wisdom — What is some of the essential wisdom you are discovering these days?
On connection — What is some of where you are feeling critical connection these days?
On funny — What is some of what is funny to you these days?
On inner / outer — How’s that inner / outer thing going for you? What’s your inner showing you about your outer? What’s your outer showing you about your inner?
On superpowers — What is one of your superpowers? Tell a story.

These are a sample, but after Quanita made a few observations and appreciations about these kinds of questions, I realized that there is a pattern to them that helps them be useful for engagement.

  1. Ask for some, not all (“…what is some of…”) — This presumes that none of us can say all of it. We can try. We can be rather clever. Or articulate. Or just brilliant. But “some of” is an invitation to freedom of choice. It’s also an orientation that acknowledges it’s not possible to get all of it. Language and words are great tools. And needed. The kicker here is to welcome the spirit of wholeness (it’s all connected) yet the freedom or partial and incomplete (yet complete enough).
  2. Ask for feeling, not just data — This presumes that most (or, er…, um…, all) of experience is subjective and not objective. Sure it’s true that we humans make lists and are rather impressive in our quantitative and qualitative sharing. I tend to be one that wants to reclaim the subjective, the sense-making that is filtered through the rather complex beings that we are with “no two exactly the same.” “What’s your feeling…” returns us to the validity of wonder.
  3. Ask for these days, not all of time — This presumes the value of just noticing what is alive and apparent now. Or recently. It doesn’t ask for a comprehensive summary of all time. It doesn’t ask of a literature review of all possible responses. It just asks for some of what is current, trusting that what is alive now might have more relevance in a continued emergence kind of way.

I love asking these kind of questions. I love being in these kind of questions. I suppose because it moves me / us into a kind of real time sensing together. It gives us chance to grow in the sun together if I stay with a living systems reference. And, just for fun, more mechanically, it gives us chance to calibrate a bit together.

I’m a student of questions. I’ve had good teachers that have themselves been oriented to being students of questions. There is an essence in the question that creates a doorway to shared meaning making, sensing, witnessing. What a delicious taste of it I got with this lovely group of people in weekend retreat. Enriched.

On Powerful Questions

I work with many people who are trying to develop powerful questions. They have learned — or they are following their instincts — that the question is a key point of engagement, and sometimes, intervention.

Inquiry together is a key aspect of a different narrative about leadership. An older narrative would have been more about telling people what to do. Marching orders. Embedded in that is a pretty deeply held mechanistic worldview. People as parts. Organizing and manipulating things. Linear orientation to time and progress. Let’s be clear — this worldview is in all of us. And of course, there are times when that orientation is just right. Putting together fifty sandwiches in ten minutes for a church picnic is pretty much an assembly line job.

However, the newer narrative — hmmm, the one that many of us are learning is more accurate and helpful — is about engagement and collaboration. It’s not marching orders. It’s questioning invitations. It’s expectation to engage key questions together, to learn together real time and with great transparency, and to build relationships, all in a real time kind of way. The newer narrative is often about attention to dynamics, not things. Dynamics change and are always present. Like the weather. It’s pretty hard to manage the weather. Rather we respond to the ever-changing dynamic by getting a sweater or bringing a swim suit.

Back to questions.

I see a lot of people fretting over the wording of questions. Trying to get it just right. Garsh, I’m going to let myself sound a bit hypocritical here for a moment. The wording of questions matters, but sometimes, I observe in myself and others an approach to naming questions that itself feels overly mechanical. Trying to engineer together many social variables to find just the right solution. It’s not an answer we’re looking for — well, at least some of the time. It is an engagement that creates a minimal container for people to find a minimal (or more) layer of interacting with one another to animate a shared energy.

The words matter. And, they don’t.

On the weekend I watched a video of some friends discussing powerful questions. It’s a community of practice and I wasn’t able to meet at the chosen time. I loved hearing their insights about questions. I offered this in retrospect: I love it that we are all growing our ability to ask questions. Asking questions (in small groups or large) is not all about a silver tongue. It is, to me, about partnering an inherent curiosity with a desire to welcome an emergence from the space between. The question is one of the things that helps that happen.

I know I rely on what I would call “pocket questions.” What do you care about here? What is important to you in this? What could this also be? I know that I trend my questions within an appreciative orientation — even with the tough stuff. What are you learning about this difficult time that is important to remember? It’s good to have these. Not to perform them, but rather, activate genuine inquiry together.

And, I want to continue to encourage the orientation that is underneath the words. What would it take for any of us to further grow in our appreciation for what arises when curiosity feeds an expectation of emergence?

That’s not just a skill. It’s an orientation. And it makes even the most simple questions, powerful.




The Importance of Questions

Thanks HSD for sharing this Chinese proverb (and many other insights I enjoyed through their newsletter).

A man who asks is a fool for five minutes.
A man who never asks is a fool for life.

I learned a similar principle when I was learning to speak Korean in my twenties, and living in South Korea. I learned that I was “going to make 1000 mistakes anyway — might as well get through them.” Those people that were with me that were afraid of making mistakes never learned nearly as well as those willing to make the mistakes and feel a bit stupid.

Many people I know are keenly interested in good questions. For lots of good reasons. Among them, the Albert Einstein quote, “if I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend the first 55 minutes trying to determine what is the right question…”

In this article, written with my friend and colleague, Kathleen Masters, we take on these aspects of good questions:

  • Is it meaningful?
  • Does it invite curiosity and reflective thinking?
  • Does it challenge assumptions?
  • Does it lead to other questions?
  • Is it simple?
  • Does it lead to possibility?
  • Does it welcome a quality of caring together?
  • Does it look for more than “yes or no?”
  • Is it well-sequenced?

What I continue to learn and encourage with others, is that if they want to become better at questions, to become radically curious. To embody a stance of radical curiosity is to open ourselves to the many subtle and intricate ways that life, and people, and projects, are deliciously interconnected. Behind questions is always genuine curiosity.



6 Questions I Go To Often

Many of us who facilitate and host people in learning are asking questions, right? We give a fair amount of attention to the simplicity, the focus, the tone that will help a group. I think of the question as one of the key tools to help the group be in its own learning. And then it’s evolution. And then it’s experiments and the stuff it does.

Here’s six that I often use. I apply them to individuals, teams, and organizations. When asked to a group, I’m most often pointing to the possibility of shared, emergent understanding. But I start with individual perception.

  1. What has your attention? (In this team, in this project, in this organization, in this community, in this strategy.) The thought behind this is that if it has your attention, we might as well be deliberate in how we give it attention. And, we are meant to be noticers, all of us. I’d write it into every job description I can think of.
  2. What is it like to be you? (Again, in this team, project, etc. — chose your scale to match the setting. And feel some freedom to vary your scale. They all connect anyway.) I love it when people answer from this layer of subjective. “It’s like being a star in a band.” “It’s like being the forgotten stage hand.” Plenty has been written about the importance of teams and team work. Use this question as a way to witness the reality of each other — which is some really good team building.
  3. What is the most simple, clear, and honest statement you can say about what we are doing? This points to purpose. It points to clarity that needs some time to be messy. It points to a marker to show us where we are in often very complex environments. I love asking this one, particularly when it seems everything should be clear, but I know that it isn’t. It’s a call to people’s simplicity. Less big words that sound good. More honest from the gut, unpolished clarity.
  4. What is the bigger story that this work belongs to? More purpose. But this one encourages a glimpse from a more epic perspective. “This team is clarifying and simplifying the billing process — the bigger story is that we are supporting people everywhere to have access to skilled health professionals.” I’m not talking about making stuff up or exaggerating. It’s just that in today’s full-on, fast-paced, complex environments, it’s utterly useful to look up periodically and remember that there is more than just today’s focus. There is a sky.
  5. How is this situation evolving? (This team, this project, this community, this initiative, this understanding, this difficulty, etc.) I love seeding in the awareness, the memory that acts and perceptions of evolution are essential. It’s less “did you fully get it or not.” It’s more, “how can you see this changing and improving?” Our jobs are to participate in evolving the work, even the assembly line parts of the work.
  6. What one or two simple steps help now? Not thirty, though I get it that sometimes that is what we need. Very often, it’s just one or two that help move an individual or group from a paralysis of mass involvement to a small, but powerful momentum in support of well-purposed project or initiative.

Questions are tools. They come from curious dispositions, as much as from a gift with words. They come from people and groups that know that they haven’t got it all figured out. That we are figuring it out as we go.