I recently attended a heated town meeting where there was a significant difference of opinion on how to most effectively develop a large parcel of land that resides across from our Conference Centre. As I sat there listening to the various perspectives I found myself becoming frustrated that, considering the importance of the issue, nobody was there to moderate the conversation. The intense atmosphere of anger led the participants to become polarized. Here a community was coming together to try to create something we would all be proud of, however, because the conversation was allowed to get so out of control we lost sight of the bigger picture. Interestingly, as I was jotting down notes from the conversation I began to notice points of agreement from the different sides, but because of the hostility those points weren’t captured. If a competent moderator had been present these connections could have been brought to the forefront of the conversation and mitigated participant polarization.
Asking the right questions can refocus a polarized group of people, spur creativity & innovation, shape strategy, enable change, encourage people to think differently, build better teams & stronger relationships, as well as restore trust and confidence. In addition to knowing how to frame questions in ways that open the mind to think differently, it is also important to create the right environment and conditions so participants feel comfortable being open and candid.
Sometimes when a team I am working with gets stuck and becomes frustrated with each others view points I find something as simple as the use of a humorous video clip satirizing a similar situation can get them to open their minds and shift their current ways of thinking. Now, after a good laugh and a much needed shift in perspective we can start over having a very different conversation that allows us to break through those polarizing and frustrating moments. I tend to use video clips from “The Daily Show with John Stewart”, he has a humorous way of showing the audience how silly things sound when opinions have become so diverse that we have lost our ability to focus on the issue at hand.
Here are some strategies for leaders when a discussion starts to get emotional and go off track:
- Ask for a “Quaker moment” of silence. It’s sort of like counting to 10. But it can last for 60 seconds. It allows a team to “restart” the discussion in a more productive manner.
- Ask what would a great leader do in a situation like this? Ask opposing parties for their suggestions. eg, what would Lincoln have done?
- Ask if there are ways to test each other’s responses
- Reframe the question – what if we were to define it in another way.
In addition, below are some helpful guidelines for asking effective questions to use with your team ~ provided by Michael Jones one of our Fellows in the Kingbridge Collaboration Centre, Michael’s work focuses on helping organizations and communities engage in transformative conversations. He also uses music to encourage people to have better conversations with each other.
- Ask open and honest questions – an honest question is one for which you cannot possibly know the answer.
- Keep questions brief and to the point – ie: a single sentence if possible – with no preamble or explanation.
- Questions should be gently paced with periods of silence – ie: keep the process spacious, gentle and humane – not a cross examination.
- It is usually helpful to ask questions about the person rather than the problem in that the problem is not the primary focus of the inquiry but rather to help the person connect with their own inner guide or teacher.
- The person who is subject of the inquiry is not obligated to answer the question – ie: they are always fully in charge of the process – in other words the inquirer should not assume more responsibility for the process than the subject!
- Ideally the questions and responses build on one another but not always. If you are intuitively inclined to ask a certain question – even if it does not seem reasonable – then trust the intuitive urge that brought the question into awareness.
- Questions that are open ended and guided by sincere passion and curiosity for the process of co-exploration – watch for leading or rhetorical questions too – these are often instances of solutions or advocacy disguised as questions.
- And remember in the inquiry process the goal is often not better solutions but better questions – the journey is its own reward.