HERE ARE SEVERAL THINGS to consider when shaping your questions for social change work :

  • Let the ideas emerge from the people affected.

    Where will great social change ideas come from? One of the basic assumptions of the strategic questioning process is that knowledge resides and is alive in all people ... that they see and know intimately the problems that are facing them, and they are probably in the best position to collectively design alternatives for themselves. The point here is to ask questions in such a way that it lets the ideas and energy come from the individual or system itself rather than the social change worker.

    It's not my job to figure out in my mind what a person should do and then somehow get her to do it. I need to stay out of the way. My opinions will not serve. My opinions will not be empowering to the person being questioned, and will not be useful.

    The person being questioned needs to figure out where they need to move and the greatest service that I can be is simply to dynamically listen, ask good questions, rephrase and reflect what they are saying back to them, and generally help them see their own pathway through the problems.

    For years we have had the image of the social change worker standing in front of the crowd "Here's what we have to do." I am not suggesting that we replace leadership, but that the leaders of the group spend a significant amount of time listening to the members, the citizens they are trying to serve, and to their "adversaries" ... and then distil what has been heard before strategy is determined. Ideas are synthesised from the listening work rather than coming solely from the leader's own mind or from one's own immediate circle.

    We all know of many people who are perfectly content to tell you what you should do. They are people who love to dispense "solutions". And we all know of experts who go from one country to another country or from one society from within a country to another society, telling people what to do. I call it the "consultancy disease".

    A change that happens as a result of the "this is what I think you should do ..." school of consultancy is often too shallow and too fast for it to have a long lasting effect. It is not empowering for the people who are trapped within the issues at stake. The people involved might look as if they have changed, but because the change strategy has not come from them, they don't own it, they have not invested themselves in the change.

    Most people, maybe you, have had the experience of going to a friend for advice and found yourself saying things that surprised you. You were saying things with a wisdom you didn't know you possessed, putting ideas together in a fresh way that seemed clear, coherent and profound.

    Without giving advice, the questioner-friend helped you think freshly and come up with a plan of action that felt clear and uncluttered with all the upset and confusion that beset you before the conversation. If advice was offered it was probably in an empowering way, "I personally think you might consider ....(an option) but whatever you decide I will love and respect you. I know you will know best what to do ..."

    When using strategic questioning in a social change campaign, you might similarly say, "I think .... but I surely don't see the picture through your eyes. Let us work to find an alternative that meets both of our needs. Even if we differ in our opinions, I respect you and will work with you to find the best way to deal with our common situation ..."

    Strategic questioning does not require that the practitioner forget about their own opinions. That would be dis-respectful to yourself ! It only means that you carry your opinions in a way that does not interfere with dialogue, the respect and the exploration of alternatives that you are trying to achieve.

  • Look for the "change view" of the people affected.

    Individuals and societies have discrete and hidden views of how change happens. The strategic questioner needs to find out how the major players on an issue explain the social changes they have seen. The strategies they are willing to use to create change in their lives, institutions and communities, will predominantly come from their "change view".

    For instance, if you ask people in the United States to tell you what changes they have seen in the their society they will give a whole list. One of their frequent observations is that people's smoking habits have changed significantly, and that smoking in public buildings has become minimal.

    When asked how this change came about people mention: changes in laws allowing smoking, the lobbying of anti-smoking groups, research showing that even passive smoking was dangerous for health, educational articles promoting anti-smoking, law suites against cigarette companies, etc. All these represent different strategies for making the social change happen.

    It is my experience that the people who mentioned educational campaigns are the most likely to put their money and energy into future educational campaigns concerning some other social change issue. Those mentioning law suits will support challenges in court or might be lawyers themselves. Writers often credit change as coming from popular articles ... and so forth. Understanding the "change views" of individuals gives us clues about the strategies which these people will support in future campaigns in their community or society.

  • Create a neutral, common ground.

    When a questioner is perceived as committed to an impartial stance, and they enter into a highly charged political problem, then people on all sides of the issue are given a safe space to let off steam and then explore alternatives.

    A team testing this theory in the early 1980's questioned many people in the Middle East about the conflicts within the region. To the PLO they asked, " Why doesn't the PLO recognise Israel ?". To the Israelis they asked, " What is keeping Israel from creating self rule for Palestine ?".

    The pat answers of course came out first. Everyone knows the answers that are available from the strong ideologies that surround the issues of the Middle East. But with more questioning in a neutral way, we can help each of the parties think freshly in an as-yet undiscovered place for them.

    When Barbara Walters, the ABC-TV interviewer, asked Anwar Sadat, "What would it take for you to go to Jerusalem and meet with Menachim Begin?", suddenly Sadat was examining the obstacles to this goal in a new way. Barbara Walters was identified as a neutral party to the conflict, and she asked a strategic question at just the right moment. She enabled Sadat to think freshly about the political realities and envision a different reality of his own making. As he talked, he found his own way to break through those obstacles, and move the issues forward towards greater peace in the Middle East.

  • Create respect.

    The strategic questioning process is a way of talking with people with whom you have differences without abandoning your own beliefs and yet looking for the common ground between you. This requires a basic sense of respect for the person being questioned. In every heart there is ambiguity ... in every ideology there are parts which don't fit. Your job is not to judge the responses to your questions, but to look for the potential for this person to make their own movement on the issue at stake.

    Strategic questioning assumes that both I and my "adversary" want to do better than we are presently doing. That starts with creating a basic feeling of respect between us. For example, take a developer, such as a sand miner, timber logger or multi-national corporation. There is probably a hidden ambivalence in the developer's heart about what they are doing, and at least a part of them wants to be doing better for the earth, better for all its creatures.

    Strategic questions assume that the common ground is "findable" by both of us in dialogue. We explore alternatives together - with respect.- that is the key. Here, we can discover a real commitment to pluralism of ideas and world-views. And we learn to not only cope with the differences between us, but also how to make it work for us institutionally and socially as well.

    Within a world being torn apart by seemingly irreconcilable differences, creating such respect is really a key task for these times.

  • Listen to pain.

    Listening to suffering is one of the most important things a social change worker can do. The job is not only to listen, but to let the suffering fully into your heart without denying its reality. This takes both courage and vulnerability on the part of the questioner. You may find yourself confronting your own limitations of heart, your own sense of helplessness surrounding the issues at stake. You may find yourself considering radical alternatives to this suffering as well as the many levels of meaning it may have.

    When you ask questions about the important things in life you're going to touch sores. People are so scared, so hurt by their own powerlessness that opening up a subject like poverty and homelessness, the threat of nuclear war, the oppression of racial and ethnic groups, a sick river, the oppression of gays and lesbians, violence or any other politically hot topic may be overwhelming to the people being questioned.

    When faced with the pain of others, it is important to give it your fullest attention - attention as if someone's life depended on it. There is a temptation here to think that the pain you may be witnessing is only an individual suffering, yet all individual suffering is tied to our collective suffering. And there are institutional and community ways of addressing or ignoring the issue that gives rise to individual pain.

    Empathy is the skill of saints ... it might take you a bit longer to deal with suffering. Don't expect to be in the presence of pain and not be profoundly affected by it. When we are at the edge of what we feel to be comfortable with, we may feel a kind of vertigo which threatens to pull us into a void and join the pain and the rage that goes with it. Will you go over the edge or stay here? Be patient with yourself and the people you are questioning.

    Listening is caring. Allowing change to ripen is caring. Caring is healing. By bringing strategic questions into a world of suffering, you can become part of that world learning to heal itself, looking for ways that the pain can move.

  • NEXT : Go Forth and Question !

    To SQ Directory

    The url for this page is