SHAPING A STRATEGIC QUESTION involves several key features :

  • A strategic question creates motion.

    Most of the traditional questions that we've been taught to ask are static. Strategic questions ask how can we move? They create movement. They are dynamic rather than allowing a situation to stay stuck.

    Often the way a conversation is structured creates resistance to movement. The martial art t'ai chi teaches a lot of wisdom about meeting resistance. It says that when you meet an obstacle, you only make it more firm by pushing directly on it. If you meet an object coming at you with resistance, it is not very useful at all. T'ai chi says that if you meet and move with the energy of the obstacle coming at you, taking the energy from the other, then motion in a new direction emerges. Both parties end up in a very different place than when they started, and the relationship between them is changed.

    It is the same with asking a strategic question. As an example, suppose Sally is working on where she will live, and perhaps she has heard of some good real estate bargains in Sydney, and she's a bit stuck on what she should do next.

    I could say to her, "Why don't you just move to Sydney ?". This question might be provocative, but not very helpful. It is really a suggestion that is pretending to be a question. For my own internal reasons I think she should move to Sydney. Perhaps I am projecting into the question my own wish to move to Sydney. Whatever. I'm leading her by the nose. And because I am asking a manipulative question, it is likely that the more I pressure Sally, the less likely she is to consider the Sydney option.

    A more strategic question would be to ask Sally, " What type of place would you like to move to ?", or "What places come to mind when you think of living happily ?", or "What is the meaning of this move in your life ?". Sally is then encouraged to talk about the qualities she wants from her new home, to set new goals ... and you can better work with her to achieve these goals.

    Asking questions that are dynamic, can help people explore how they can move on an issue. On my first working trip to India with the Friends of the Ganges project, I asked the local people, "What would you like to do to help clean up the river ?"

    Now, you might ask, "How did I know they wanted to clean up the river ?". Well, I wanted to ask a question that assumed motion on this issue. I assumed that people are always wanting to do more appropriate behaviour. I further assumed that they wanted to move from their state of powerlessness regarding what to do about the pollution in the Ganges. Many interesting ideas emerged when I used that question - some of which we have implemented.

    When we are stuck on a problem, what keeps us from acting for change is either a lack of information, or we have been wounded in our sense of personal power on an issue, or there is no system in place that enables us to move the issue forward. In our stuckness, we don't see how to make the motion.

    When I ask a question like, "What would you like to do to help clean up the river ?", I open up a door for the local people to move beyond their grief and guilt and powerlessness about the pollution to the active dreaming and creation of their own contributions.

  • A strategic question creates options.

    If I asked Sally, "Why don't you move to Sydney ?", I have asked a question that is dynamic only in one direction (Sydney) and it very much limits the options she is challenged to think about.

    A more powerful strategic question opens the options up. "Where would you like to live ?", or, "What are the three or four places that you feel connected to ?". There are much more helpful questions to ask her at this time. Sally might have been so busy thinking about the real estate bargains in Sydney, that she has lost a sense of all the other possibilities and her real goals.

    A strategic questioner would help Sally look at the many options equally. Supposing Sally says she could move to Byron Bay or Sydney. It's not up to me to say to myself, "I think Sydney is the best, and I should encourage her down that path". If you're being ethical about it, then you could best help Sally sort out her own direction by questioning all the options even-handedly, with the same enthusiasm and interest in discussing both Sydney and Byron Bay. Not only that, but you could help by asking if there are any more options that occur to her during the questioning time (Twin Falls, Idaho ... or New Plymouth, New Zealand). Out of these questions, a brand new option may emerge.

    It is particularly important for a strategic questioner not to focus on only two options. We are so accustomed to binary thinking, whether it's either Sydney or Byron Bay ... that Brisbane cannot emerge as a viable alternative. Usually when someone is only considering two options, they simply have not done the creative thinking to look at all the possibilities.

    People are usually comfortable when they have two options and think they can make a decision at that level. This is part of the delusion of control. And since two alternatives is already more complex than one, people stop thinking. The world is far more complex and exciting than any two options would indicate, but having two options creates the idea that a decision, however limited, is being made.

    I have a friend whose daughter had got into some conflicts and had run away. My friend was fortunate in that she knew which train the daughter was probably leaving on in a few hours time. She was trying to decide whether to just let the daughter get on the train and run away, or to go to the train and insist that she come home.

    I talked it over with her, and we worked on these options for a while, and then I asked, " What else could you do to help your daughter with her conflicts?". She thought. And then a new idea came up - She could run away with her daughter, and take the twelve hours on the train to help her sort things out.

    Now, because my friend was scared and afraid for her daughter, she had been unable to think of this fine option until the door was opened through the question. It was the kind of option that she would probably have thought of a month after the event when all her anxious feelings had subsided, then she would have kicked herself for not thinking of it at the time.

  • A strategic question digs deeper.

    Questions can be like a lever you use to pry open the stuck lid on a paint can. And there are long lever questions and short lever questions.

    Supposing I have just a short little lever, we can only just crack open that lid on the can. But if we have a longer lever, or a more dynamic question, we can open that can up much wider and really stir things up.

    Some people approach problems with their heads just like a closed paint can. If the right question is applied, and it digs deep enough, then we can stir up all the creative solutions to that problem. We can chip away a lot of the crusty sediment that is trapping the lid on that person's head. A question can be a stirrer. It can lead to synthesis, motion and energy.

  • A strategic question avoids "Whys".

    When I asked Sally, "Why don't you move to Sydney ?", it was a question that focused on why she doesn't do it, rather than creating a more active and forward motion on the issue.

    Most "Why" questions are like that. They force you to defend an existing decision or rationalise the present. "Why" questions also have the effect of creating resistance to change.

    The openness of a particular question is obvious at the gross extremes, but becomes far more subtle and subjective as you deepen your understanding of the skills of strategic questioning. For example, can you feel the difference between asking, "Why don't you work on poverty ?", and, "What keeps you from working on poverty ?"

    Sometimes a Why? question is very powerful as you focus on values, and meaning. But in general it is a short-lever question.

  • A strategic question avoids "Yes" or "No" answers.

    Again, these type of questions ("Have you considered...") don't really encourage people to dig deeper into their issues. A question that is answered with a "Yes" or "No" reply, almost always leaves the person being asked the question passive and in an uncreative state.

    A strategic questioner needs to rephrase their queries so that they avoid the "yes and No" dead ends. It can make a huge difference to the communication taking place.

    I heard of a student who was very intrigued by the ideas behind strategic questioning. He realised that he hardly ever spoke a question to his wife without it getting simply a "Yes" or "No" in reply. A week after the class on strategic questioning, he reported that the technique had completely changed his home life! He had gone home and told his wife about these special types of questions, and they agreed to avoid asking a question that has a "Yes" or "No" answer ... for a week. He reported they had never talked so much in their lives!

  • A strategic question is empowering.

    A strategic question creates the confidence that motion can actually happen, and this is certainly empowering. When I have asked people in India, "What would you like to do to clean your river ?", it assumes that they have a part in that picture of healing. It even expresses a confidence in the person being questioned that they have a contribution to designing the cleaning-up process.

    One of my favourite questions is, "What would it take for you to change on this issue ?". This question lets the other person create the path for change. Imagine an environmental protester going to a lumber mill owner and asking, "What would it take for you to stop cutting down the old-growth trees ?". This question is an invitation to the mill owner to co-create options for the future of his business with the community. The owner might tell the questioner the obstacles he faces in making changes to his business, and maybe they can work together to satisfy some of their mutual needs so that the old-growth trees can be preserved.

    The planning that comes out of asking such a strategic question may not exactly resemble what either party wanted in the beginning ... but a new reality is born out of the dialogue, and could well work to achieve both the protester's and the mill owner's goals.

    Empowerment is the opposite of manipulation. When you use strategic questioning, rather than putting ideas into a person's head, you are actually allowing that person to take what's already in their head and work with it.

    I had a student who worked in the command structure of a large police force. Like many government departments, his department had been restructured and this had led to stress and disgruntlement between colleagues. They were not working together as a team. For weeks in their staff meetings, members of the department had been asking themselves, "What was wrong with the way we are working ?".

    When my student took the strategic questioning methods back to his unit, his department started to approach their difficulties with different, and more empowering, questions. They asked, "What will it take for us to function as a team?", "How do we want to work together?", "What do each of us want to do?", "What support do we each need ?" They reported that after the strategic questioning session, the low morale started to move, meetings became creative and a sense of teamwork returned to the unit.

  • A strategic question asks the unaskable questions.

    For every individual, group, or society, there are questions which are taboo. And because those questions are taboo there is tremendous power in them. A strategic question is often one of these "unaskable" questions. And it usually is unaskable because it challenges the values and assumptions that the whole issue rests upon.

    I like the fairy story about the king who went on a parade without any clothes on, because he had been tricked by some unscrupulous weavers into thinking he was wearing a magnificent costume. It was a child that asked the unaskable question, "Why doesn't the King have any clothes on ?". If that child had been a political activist, she might have asked other unaskable questions, like, " Why do we need a King ?", or, "How can we get a wiser government ?".

    In the early 1980's, one of the unaskable questions for me was, "What shall we do if a nuclear bomb is dropped?". You couldn't answer that without facing our overwhelming capacity for destruction, and the senselessness of it. That question allowed many of us to move beyond terror and denial, and work politically to keep it from happening.

    Some other unaskable questions might be : for the seriously ill person : " Do you want to live or die ?" ... for those involved in sexual politics : " Is gender a myth?" ... for the workaholic : " What do you do for joy ?" ... for the tree activist: " How should we have building materials ?" ... or for the politician : " What do you like about the other parties' platform ?", or " How could both parties work closer together ?".

    Questioning values is a strategic task of our times. This is because it is the values behind highly politicised issues that have usually got us into the trouble in the first place. We need to look at a value, a habit, an institutional pattern and ask, "Is this value working or not ?", "Are these values working for the common good ?", "Are these values pro-survival (pro-life) or anti-life?"

    If you can ask the unaskable in a non-partisan way, not to embarrass someone but to probe for more suitable answers for the future ... then it can be a tremendous service to any "stuck" issue.

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