Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Question Time

My co-workers have been joking that play time is over and it's time for me to get down to business. Last week wasn't exactly all play-- I was getting a sense of things on the ground, meeting people, reading reports and studies, and doing a lot of thinking. Over the weekend I took some time to write out a few options for reformulating my project now that I have a better understanding of the current state of things. We firmed up the details of my project focus yesterday and since then I have been hard at work developing a list of potential interviewees, drafting introductory emails, and formulating questions. On the side I will help Steve and Jason document and facilitate the formation of the "localism" groups in Queensland.

In an unrelated conversation this morning, Ross mentioned an essay called The Art of Powerful Questions, and seeing as good questions are key to good interviews, I decided to give it a read. The article praises curiosity and encourages readers to have the courage to let go of a "fix-it" mentality to embrace questioning that opens up infinite possibilities and moves beyond current understandings and paradigms. "As we enter an era in which systemic issues often lie at the root of critical challenges, in which diverse perspectives are required for sustainable solutions, and in which cause-and-effect relationships are not immediately apparent, the capacity to raise penetrating questions that challenge current operating assumptions will be key to creating positive futures."

A powerful question:
  • generates curiosity in the listener
  • stimulates reflective conversation
  • is thought-provoking
  • surfaces underlying assumptions
  • invites creativity and new possibilities
  • generates energy and forward movement
  • channels attention and focuses inquiry
  • stays with participants
  • touches a deep meaning
  • evokes more questions

So how do you write powerful questions? The article describes three key dimensions to consider. The first is something that anyone who has attended a workshop on facilitation will know: Why, How, and What questions are infinitely more powerful than Yes/No questions. While some simple, informative questions may be relevant and important, they should ultimately lead to deeper questions that really get the participants to reflect. Second, the questioner should carefully consider scope, or the domain of inquiry the participants will engage with. In other words, the questions should stay "within the realistic boundaries and needs of the situation you are working with." Instead of asking about any planning processes the Queensland government has ever initiated, I will ask the interviewee to consider their specific prior experiences with water planning processes. The final dimension is awareness of assumptions within questions that may or may not be shared by the people involved in the exploration.

The article also introduced the idea that in some cases the questions do not need to be premeditated. "Sometimes the most important thing is to help the people themselves shape the questions in the most powerful way, since they know their own situation the best of anyone." This reminded me of a story my friend Emma told about her work in communities in Kenya. One day, while conducting an interview, a young Maasai man turned the interview around to ask why she was the one who got ask the questions. "We should be the ones asking these questions of our own community," the man insisted.

Though I'm here in Australia conducting research within a community that is not my own, I will soon be back in Arkansas to participate in these internal processes within my own community like the Maasai man is hopefully doing in his. The article gave me a lot of food for thought in terms of my own leadership style back home. I've specifically been thinking about the group I was trying to start to develop a youth contribution to the gas drilling situation in the Fayetteville Shale. I think I was too focused on what we were going to DO. Instead, perhaps I should have allowed more time for dialogue, deep inquiry, and reflection. I'd be curious to hear stories about successes and challenges people have had with this type of method!

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