Module 5: Exploring Issues to Understand Interests – Section 1

The following is Section 1 from Module 5 of “Essential Skills for Engaging Conflict”, a course that Sound Options Group developed in partnership with Oklahoma State University.  These modules are a great resource to lead your team through as you work to improve your conflict engagement skills.

 The correlation between the questions asked to the conversation experienced

The exploration phase in a process of collaborative decision making is crucial and yet often overlooked or given only cursory attention.  In the early stages of the conversation we typically have only a preliminary understanding of the issue(s) based on our initial sharing of information.  The questions we choose to ask will be critical to our ultimate outcome.  Too often our questions shift the conversational focus to a specific solution or plan of action.  “Now that we know what the problem is, what should we do?” becomes the focusof our attention.

There is a fundamental decision to be made at this point in our conversation. Will we generate questions in service of divergent thinking or convergent thinking?  Will they expand our shared understanding of the issue(s) or will we begin to look for a quick and readily accessible solution.  It has been said that the conversation we have is determined by the questions we ask.  What we ask, the spirit in which we ask it, how we ask . . . will invite certain responses and discourage others.

In general, questions focused on divergent thinking are intended to increase our shared thinking and understanding on an issue.  They are designed to take the conversation into a deeper understanding of the complexity of a subject.  They are questions that push the conversation beyond the known into the unknown.  Questions intended to support divergent thinking focuson increasing our awareness of alternatives, encourage open discussion, are designed to gather diverse points of view, and facilitate unpacking the logic of a problem

The Public Conversations Project, a dialogue facilitation group, share the following thoughts on questions in their workshop entitled “The Power of Dialogue: Constructive Conversations on Divisive Issues”:

The questions we ask have real effects” (Michael White).  “Our questions are fateful” (David Cooperider).  The very act of asking questions influences people.  Acts of asking and answering alter experience and generate possibilities for further experiences.  Questions are statements of the questioner’s beliefs, interests, commitments and they are acts that have effects on listeners, even before they are overtly responded to.  Questions develop and are responded to in specific contexts that have power to shape meanings, invite or discourage curiosity and openness, restrict or expand possibilities for action.”

“What we focuson expands; attention gives life” (David Cooperider)

They share the following distinctions for correlating types of questions with types of conversations.  For example a question may seek to:

  • Elicit facts, or; Generate experience
  • Elicit positional speaking, or; Elicit personal experience
  • Challenge the other, or; Explore the other’s perception
  • Determine the other’s knowledge, or; Invite the other’s collaboration and beliefs
  • Elicit a problem focus, or; Elicit a focus on skills and strengths and desired outcomes
  • Elicit history, or; Elicit imagination (e.g. future dreams and hopes)

They go on to advocate for asking questions in support of shared learning that are designed to:

  • Create openings where there are closings, surface something that feels fresh and new;
  • Express curiosity about someone’s experiences and perspectives, passions and strengths;
  • Promote reflection and new thinking;
  • Promote collaborative, side-by-side relationships

For some, this may increase our discomfort and frustration.  Many of us are problems solvers and our goal is to make a decision and agree to a plan of action as quickly as possible.  We are very busy, time is a limited resource, and we have lots to do.  Our questions are too often oriented to convergent thinking.  The focus becomes evaluating alternatives, summarizing key points, sorting ideas into categories and arriving as quickly as possible at a general conclusion or decision.

This fundamentally compromises our ability to achieve one of the key values of collaboration; leveraging our individual thinking into shared thinking so as to generate new and innovative thinking.  More often than not challenges we are facing are not simple or complicated but complex.  They will not be solved with technical solutions but require the adaptive work of shared learning.

As a group engage in the following activity to increase your understanding of what makes a “good question”

Individually: 

  • Think of a question that you have used in your work, once or regularly, that you believe is a useful and “good question”.

Or

  • Think of a question that you have been asked that caused you to engage in significant reflection and possible change

As a group:  Take turns sharing

  • Briefly describe the context in which you ask the question.
  • What is the question and how do you ask it?
  • What happens when you ask the question?  What impact does it have?  What kind of thinking does it generate?
  • What do you believe makes it a good question

As a group:  From this conversation, summarize some characteristics of a good question.

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