LearnFwd: Discontinuous Questions

Say I’m just beginning my work with a new organization. We’ve gathered together a group made up of administrators, artists, board members, and a couple friends of the organization. Not everyone knows each other very well, so I’ve taken some time for icebreakers and making connections. Now it’s time to get to work, to wrestle with that persistent and complex challenge—one where the possible, adaptive ways forward have to emerge from the views, questions, anxieties, and off-the-beaten-track ideas of this diverse but invested group.

How we do I ensure that the people who know the organization best don’t dominate the discussion? How do I make space for voices from below and outside? And how might I foster an environment where people truly listen to each other, turning down the “noise” of always needing to know the answer or needing to find reassurance, in order to just be with ourselves and with each other and the questions at hand?

A way I often begin is to ask a question. Not an expected, logical one, but rather a question that’s a bit “off” from the usual—one that surprises, or that disrupts our usual paths of thinking and responding. I find that asking an oblique or naïve question, even if it isn’t directly connected to the specific group I’m working with, can be a great way to begin.

Here are a couple questions I’ve used:

  • Where have you noticed discontinuous practices of engagement in your community? What’s so discontinuous about it?  (Note that I’m asking about their community, not their organization.)
  • Where are you noticing disequilibrium in your field? (For those coming from outside the organization, this can be an opportunity to share observations about their own field.)

In response to these questions, I’m often asked: “Umm, what do you mean by discontinuous? Or by disequilibrium?” In response, I explain that I’m encouraging them to notice the edges of our topic, not the norms or best practices. What I’m trying to do with such a question is to begin to build a habit within the group of being curious, sharing things they notice but aren’t sure about, and taking the risk of “not knowing” within themselves and with their colleagues.

I also like the question from activist and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs that I learned from adrienne marie brown’s book Emergent Strategy: “What time is it on the clock of the world?” Or, to shift the question a bit, “What time is it on the clock of our organization? Or this program?” It’s not quite the question people in the group were expecting. It actually stumps them a bit—and therefore slows down their thinking to a noticing speed, instead of the knowing/judging/responding speed of experienced thought!

It’s vital in working with this kind of question to assure space for all the voices in the group—the experienced as well as the inexperienced, and the differently experienced.  You don’t want the majority of the group to defer to the deep experience of the Executive Director, Artistic Director, department head, or board chair, or be deferential to the authority of their positions.

As a facilitator, I have a few tools I use that help make the posing and discussing of these questions most effective. They might seem simple, even obvious in their design, but I have found them reliable in making sure all voices get heard. A little intentional design goes a long way in assisting your group to take risks and live with ambiguity!

  • Before you pose your question, request that everyone get ready with a pen and paper (or device!), and then ask them to reflect quietly on the question for 1 minute, jotting down their own thoughts before sharing with others. Some people need time to process and wonder quietly, or they won’t speak up meaningfully when it’s time to share.
  • Invite people to do this exercise in small groups of 3 or 4. Often I curate these groups to include people with different roles and backgrounds. If I have a sense of who might be inclined to dominate the conversation and who might be reticent, I also try to make groupings where there’s likely to be a balance to the sharing and dialogue.
  • If it’s best to keep the entire group together, carefully choose who you begin with. Start with someone who isn’t the usual power in the room. And notice which way you go around the room asking for responses—maybe that board member who generally has little process tolerance and who is used to speaking up first is requested to speak in the middle. Also, pay attention to who speaks last—we can’t help it, we often remember what they say the best. Who’s the person you have a hunch will have been listening deeply, will build on what has been developing, and will be vulnerable and brave enough to share something insightful as the circle finishes?
  • Remind all participants that there’s a process, a container, for grappling with complexity. You’re not just there for one 2-hour meeting! You can go slow in the early stages, in order to “go fast” later, so this is your time to slow down your thinking, to share, to discuss, to wonder, and not all rush for “the solution.”

In my role as a facilitator leading the gathered group through a process of grappling with complexity, I’m very conscious of one of Ron Heifetz’s definitions of adaptive leadership: my goal is to “mobilize people’s hearts and minds to work together differently to address complex challenges.” And sometimes what that mobilization needs to get going is a few quirky, unexpected questions.

What questions do you use to start things off? How do you invite people to share their responses and begin the dialogue? Please let me know!

Melissa Dibble is the Managing Director and Lead Facilitator at EmcArts, bringing over two decades of experience in cultural administration and development of new strategies in organizational innovation within the arts sector.