From a Few Questions

It has always been important to ask good questions, hasn’t it. The questions that reach deeper into what is really going on. The questions that add just enough clarity that they move us just a little. The questions that stop us in our tracks and that reshape everything.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about good questions. Actually, that’s not completely true. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what might help the people that I’m with (and me) in the circumstances that they find themselves in. These are work contexts in which teams are trying to stay healthy. These are some more personal contexts in which individuals are trying to make sense of very raw material.

Perhaps it is all raw. The check-ins that I’ve been a part of lately have all had a noticeable amount of sorrow in them — because of the shootings in New Zealand, or the unrest in Paris, or animated disputes that are national and local politics, or the shooting without cause of another black man, or the fires that burn in Australia, or the continued revelations of abuse within church systems that lay covered for decades. Or, or, or. There is rawness.

There are two particular questions that I’ve been noticing are helpful for these intense times — again, in my search for what helps. And these questions, though they can be very useful at scale and in more formal program within organizational systems, are what I’m thinking about that can help in a more horizontal way. These are questions that can be asked more vitally with one another, even in casual circumstances.

  1. What do you feel is the essence of what is happening here? The key word in this is “essence.” Well, that and, “you feel.” The layers of complexity that continue to grow, the layers of interconnectedness, the layers of soundbites and manipulated communications — these are all leading us to an even more paramount layer of reclaiming essence. What is at the core of this? What is most central? What is at the crux of it? The “you feel” is important in that it’s welcoming the subjective — because complexity requires us to expect the subjective. It’s not “the truth” that can be manipulated and marketed that matters. It’s “a truth” that comes from awareness that matters and from good listening together.
  2. Are there improvements your can offer or suggest? The key word in this one is “improvements.” And, “offer.” Improvements aren’t about a complete fix. They aren’t about magically taking on the whole dragon with single-handed bravado, expecting to conquer. That’s good mythological material, and I suppose, some imprinted DNA of expected story. But what seems to matter more these days is some of the incremental movement, and from a chosen value. Is there something that you feel we could do slightly better here? Is there an essence to your improvement? The “offering” here is about a needed capacity to experiment. It’s giving us all something to try and to work from a spirit of proposals.

These questions aren’t that complicated. I’m not even trying to wordsmith them too much. The questions are simple. The values — essence and improvements — are deliberate. The simple questions are often what helps us move, any of us as individuals and in teams, in some rather complex, intense, raw, and shock-filled domains. In my most simple impulses, I imagine that these questions asked with some deliberateness — whether in the coffee room, the staff meeting, or in the company-wide — these questions animate an energy that brings some wisdom and aliveness back to our endeavors. They are life-lines to help in what feels like drowning in complexity.

It was my friend and colleague, Toke Moeller, that I most remember speaking a simple principle from our work together in the early 2000s. “Purpose is the invisible leader.”  Toke was pointing to the clarity of purpose needed, that if animated, has a way of guiding all of us. It is my sense, as I think it was for Toke and many of us back then, that a focus on first, essence, and then, improvements, get us to more of a shared purpose these days. And, well, with that, perhaps some hope too.

All from a few questions.

Thanks in particular to colleague and friend Kathleen Masters, and a recent conversation in which some of these points of awareness became a bit more clear.

From Teacher / Classroom to Community / Engaged

Education is as old as humanity. Since the beginning of time, I believe we have been trying to teach each other. We’ve been trying to learn together to understand our surroundings, to be safe, to try cool things, and to encounter the inescapable qualities of mystery.

Somewhere in one of the authoritarian eras, our initial and naturally curious dispositions were channeled into learning much more mechanically and much less holistically. Learning shifted into transactional exchange, with unusual attention to the parts rather than the whole.

Phew! I realize I’m pulling out a rather big and spotty narrative here — stay with me.

The industrial era, for example, radically changed the nature of craftsmanship. Capitalism brought speed and efficiency. So did the arrival of the factory. It also collapsed a pile of artisanry. What once was responsibility to make the whole shoe became scores of people that only mass produced the heels, or the tongues, or the eyeholes for laces.

Authoritarian eras highlight power and transaction. One person knows something and must teach to others, who are generally expected to absorb the expertise and then replicate it. You can feel the partial truth in this, right? Of course it is important to learn. Of course it is important to learn from people who know how to do things.

However, I’m a bit disappointed with the limits of the expert model and what that does to communities trying to engage — these days. I feel myself and many others trying to rework, and reclaim alternative stories that bring greater vitality among all of us learning, and the temporary spots we hold of teaching.

Let me pull this down a bit to more specific contemporary example. A couple of weeks ago I was participating in an online class. The format is one hour long. There is good material that the teacher shares. This is a small class — there are 8-10 of us. After going through the material, the teacher asks, “Do you have any questions?” It seems like a good question. It seems kind. There are times when this is just the right question. However, in that moment, and I believe most moments like this, that question intended to invite added learning actually shuts learning down. People clam up. There’s quite a silence. And as often seems to be in those circumstances, it’s only an obligatory kind question that someone asks just to remove the silence, but has very little meaning.

To be fair, I’ve asked that kind of question before. Sometimes with success. Sometimes with similar weird silence. These days, I grumble a lot inside. What takes this from teacher / class to a community / engaged is rather simple. One, invite all to speak to a slightly different, yet significantly altered question — “Is there a learning or question that this stirs up in you?” Notice that this question presupposes a bit more room for the unresolvedness that lives in questions. It’s not a report. It’s not a test. It’s an invitation to deposit your transparency to the good of the group. The other simple thing, two, particularly if the group is too large or the time is too short, is to make smaller groups. Again, have each person in the smaller groups respond to the modified question — “Is there a  learning or question that this stirs up in you?”

What comes from this shift in question is, one, much more participation. And, now back to the bigger sweeping story, creating more participation and engagement is the reclaimed modality here. Less “I’m the jug; you are the mug.” Way too old of a disposition. More “There is wisdom in the group that will only come about through some designated and deliberate interaction.”

This post feels like a bit of a rant. It is, I suppose. I feel a bit whiny in writing it. Yet, I also feel a bit aware that interrupting patterns, including the primary assumptions about interaction, is some of the most paramount work of our times. The renewed story these days — I’m glad for those in it — is to help animate more aliveness in everyone connected to the issue, or the problem, or the opportunity, or the wondering.

Let’s wrap this one up for today. I’ll offer a premise that rests behind most of the work I do that has direct implication on nuancing questions and working in any group settings. This is the most simple I can find for me. It’s the most honest I can find. And, well, thankfully, it’s quite fruitful (again when indicator of fruitfulness is about witnessing people and groups come alive). Ready?

There is always more unseen than seen.
There is always more unknown that known. 

This alone changes how we are together.

Now let me quote again Margaret Wheatley, friend and colleague from these many years. On the back cover of her book,  Turning to One Another she offers this:

There is no greater power than a community discovering what it cares about.

Ask “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?”  Keep asking.
Notice what you care about.
Assume that many others share your dreams.

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
Talk to people you know.
Talk to people you don’t know.
Talk to people you never talk to.

Be intrigued by the differences you hear.
Expect to be surprised.
Treasure curiosity more than certainty.

Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.
Acknowledge that everyone is an expert in something.
Know that creative solutions come from new connections.

Remember, you don’t fear people who’s story you know.
Real listening always brings people closer together.
Trust that meaningful conversations change your world.

Rely on human goodness. Stay together.

I believe we are living in an era that seeks so necessarily to reclaim aliveness with one another. The tools to get to that are not particularly complicated. But they are a practice, and ongoing practice. They point us to encountering one another, and trust that there is some of the mystery that we will find together, and in the moment, that will carry us to another part of the mystery. It’s rather simple, but oddly, changes the whole picture, just like a slight adjustment does in viewing a kaleidoscope. The shift in the questions we ask, and the assumptions behind it, I think move us, thankfully from old strictarian teaching to animated community, which I’m guessing, is where education has been wanting to return to for a long time.


Courageous Conversations Are No Longer Optional

True, right.

Amy Butler, Senior Minister of The Riverside Church, New York City goes on to share her reflections from hosting a conversation that included Brene Brown.

My job as host last Thursday was not to contribute any deep wisdom to the conversation; if you saw the event you already know that their exchange was so deep and intense that there was very little possibility I would succeed at even interrupting them. Rather, I was there to prod the conversation along if needed, to offer questions from the viewing audience, and to listen intently …


… which was what I was doing when Brown responded to a comment by McKesson: “There’s not enough preaching in the world that can make people change their hearts.”


I was startled when I heard it. I am a preacher, after all.


“There’s not enough preaching in the world that can make people change their hearts.”


This is a jarring comment for a preacher to hear, especially when we’re engaging issues that are so deep and raw that nobody is sure their best efforts at anything — protesting, policy change or even preaching — can make even a dent in the scar that America’s original sin has left on our individual and corporate psyches.


But here’s the strange thing: I’m a preacher … and I agree with Brené.


There is not enough preaching in the world that can make people change their hearts, and preachers who are under the illusion that theirs might, have a bigger problem on their hands. We live in a country where rhetoric of any kind is not doing the work of changing peoples’ hearts, but instead serving to more deeply entrench us in opinions we already hold and to polarize us in positions even further away from each other than we imagined.


We’re going to have to do more, to move past talking (even preaching!) and into the messy and painful work of deep conversation held together by real relationship. In fact, it’s increasingly my conviction that this may be the heart of the faith community’s work in this moment: building authentic relationships upon which these difficult conversations can rest.

The full post / article is here.

I love it that so many of us are growing courage and clarity together to connect, not just as nicety, but as bedrock for facing these times that we live in. In churches. In communities. In organizations. In ourselves.