As a practitioner-in-training, I think a lot about questions. Coming from a liberal arts background, I have long been enamored with the practice of asking intellectual questions—questions whose purpose was to stimulate thinking toward greater understanding of the world. Once I was introduced to Public Conversations-style dialogue, I learned about question-asking for a different purpose: to shape and change the conversations and relationships between people.
This was a really new concept for me. I began to wonder how to ask questions that would shape my conversations into more positive, genuine and deeply connected ones. One of the most helpful things I’ve learned about inquiry is that there exists a space between intention and impact. Every time we ask someone a question, we have a certain intention behind our question. When asked a question, every person hears, receives, and experiences that question in a unique way. Sometimes, intention does not equal impact.
At a recent conference for leaders in Unitarian Universalist communities, I had the opportunity to practice my question-crafting-and-asking skills and witness the “intention-impact gap” firsthand. At this conference, my colleague Alison and I conducted a workshop on the power of questions in engaging LGBTQ youth.
As is our practice at Public Conversations, Alison and I planned an opening “go round” where participants would, in turn, speak their answer to an introductory question. Part of the design process for any of our workshops involves crafting this introductory question. We asked ourselves: What are we trying to DO with this question? What kind of impact do we want this question to have on folks? How do we hope they’ll experience the question? How do we want this question to guide them in their speaking?
We decided that we wanted folks to feel like they were being offered the opportunity to bring an authentic part of themselves into the room—a part that they might, in a different workshop space, not feel invited to share. Essentially, we wanted to open a space for sharing “the heart of the matter”—why they were there at the conference that day; what brought them there; who or what they cared about that gave them reason to be in attendance. Once we had a sense of the intention of our question, we crafted actual questions that we hoped would match intention and impact.
So we toggled between a few questions that you’ll notice sound a lot like what we intended to elicit:
Question Option #1: Why are you here at this conference today?
Question Option #2: What brings you here today?
Question Option #3: What is something or someone you care about that brings you here today?
After coming up with a longer list and whittling it down to these three, Alison and I had a long conversation about the potential impact of each of these questions on the workshop participants. After a lot of consideration, we decided on question number two, “What brings you here today?”
Our logic? We thought it would be broad enough that it could inspire folks to speak about deeper reasons for attending that weren’t so explicitly based in the “this is what I care about” frame of question three. We also thought that, compared with question one, question two seemed gentler. We thought that “Why are you here at this conference today?” could have been experienced as aggressive, accosting, or implying that folks need to have a “good enough” reason to be there. We worried this question wouldn’t promote the kind of open and inviting atmosphere we were trying to create among folks who were meeting one another for the first time.
On the day of the workshop, as I was listening to the responses in the opening go-round, I noticed that participants were responding to the question in very different ways. Some responded by talking about their reasons for being there in a predominantly professional manner. Others spoke about their interest in the topic of LGBTQ youth. Some referred to having personal relationships, identities or experiences that compelled them to attend. Many people included a mix of these things in their answer.
Ultimately, it seemed to me that our question didn’t provide a strong enough frame to really get people talking about “the heart of the matter.” “What brings you here today?” was so broad in its interpretive potential that we heard from participants numerous different possibilities for answering. It seemed that its lack of specificity and direction scattered folks in a thousand directions.
Was this necessarily a bad thing? Not at all. For me, the experience of witnessing this brought into sharper relief the knowledge that every individual person experiences a question in a unique way. But it’s also true that the question we chose did not, for the group as a whole, have the impact we anticipated.
After the exercise, we revealed to the participants our process for deciding upon the introductory question, and we offered up questions one and three for them to consider. How would question three have struck you? How about question one? Which one of these would you have liked to answer? Which one of these would have helped you speak to “the heart of the matter?”
On the whole, participants said that the third question, “What is something or someone you care about that brings you here today?” would have had a greater chance of helping them speak to “the heart of the matter.” Could we have anticipated that? Possibly. This question is one that Public Conversations practitioners have used for numerous introductory exercises, precisely because they have watched it achieve its intended impact more than other questions of its kind. We could have chosen to use this question based on the knowledge that it is time-tested and it works.
And: I’m glad we didn’t. I’m grateful that instead of simply electing the “safe” route, we chose to explore the potential of a different option. While the goal is always to match intention and impact, one can only learn to craft effective questions with practice. As I learned through this workshop, it is as important to experience the disjuncture of intention and impact as it is to experience successful alignment of the two. When one learns which question doesn’t work for a particular context, person, and situation (and why), she is one step closer to figuring out what does work.
Instead of always trying to find the “right” question on the first attempt—the question that perfectly aligns intention and impact—I’d rather remember to practice the following:
- Ask a question with intention
- Listen and watch for the question’s impact
- Inquire about the impact
- Take what you’ve learned and try again