Provision #441: Ask Open Questions

Laser Provision

When was the last time that you were engaged in a great conversation? Chances are it involved open questions and careful listening. It can be unpleasant to be in a conversation with someone who has all the answers or, even worse, who is on the attack. It is much more rewarding and productive to be in a conversation with someone who asks great questions and allows the answers to emerge slowly, without presumption or condescension. If you want to develop this capacity, then read on to discover yet another dimension of Appreciative Inquiry.

LifeTrek Provision

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) combines two powerful tools: appreciation and inquiry. Both are equally important for a transformational change process to be successful.

It starts with appreciation or “recognizing the quality, value, significance, or magnitude of people and things.” I love the fact that appreciation also represents “an expression of gratitude.” The two definitions are both intertwined and inseparable. To recognize the value of someone or something without expressing gratitude for what that person or thing brings to the table is a contradiction in terms. So don’t think you are being appreciative if you just mouth the words; genuine appreciation is both heartfelt and heart warming. People know when they are appreciated.

Appreciation alone, however, is not enough to initiate or to sustain a transformational change process. Without inquiry, the “close examination of a matter in search for information or truth,” appreciation does little other than to make people feel good. With inquiry, appreciation has the ability to shine light on the areas that are most in need of change. But AI does this only if the inquiry part is done right.

Consider the tangled question that’s more bait than question: “When did you stop beating your wife?” There are three obvious problems with this “inquiry”:

— It’s framed for a short, simple answer. “Yesterday,” “February 10, 2003,” “I don’t know,” or “Not yet,” would all answer the question. But such answers would not tell us very much. That’s because the question, as it is framed, seeks neither information nor truth; it seeks to confirm what the questioner already believes.

— It’s designed to get people in trouble. No matter how you answer the question, you lose. To give a date is to admit you did, once, beat your wife. To feign ignorance, to protest, or to say, “Not yet,” is to imply that you still do beat your wife. It is a setup rather than an inquiry.

— It disguises depreciation as appreciation. One can imagine asking this question with an appreciative tone, since the wife and everyone else would value such an outcome. But the whole thing is a lie. It is meant to tear people down rather than to build people up. It poses an insoluble dilemma that provokes defensiveness rather than openness to change.

Unfortunately, such closed and prescriptive questions are more the rule than the exception in life and work. How many times have you heard “inquiries” such as these?

  • “When are you going to get this done?”
  • “Where were you at 4:00 when I tried to call?”
  • “Have you read our policies on that?”
  • “How much did that cost?”
  • “What score did you get?”
  • “Have you talked to her about the problem?”
  • “Who else is concerned about this?”
  • “Do you like the way this is going?”
  • “Does this mean trouble for us?”

These “inquiries” are neither appreciative nor are they true inquiries. They do not make people feel good, they do not look for strengths, and they do not invite people to tell their stories. They can all be satisfied with short, simple answers that, more often than not, will serve only to confirm preexisting suspicions.

Ask too many such questions in a row and people feel grilled, undercut, disrespected, and demotivated. Instead of assisting people to think for themselves with creative ideas and copious energy, such closed and prescriptive questions cause people to backpedal, to become mistrustful, and to shut down.

No wonder problem solving so often fails to solve the problem! By digging for answers and looking for weeds with closed and prescriptive questions, we provoke resistance rather than openness to change. However well intentioned, such efforts usually make matters worse rather than better.

Fortunately, appreciative inquiry cuts the Gordian knot of problem solving with its emphasis on open and descriptive questions. Consider how to reframe each of the inquiries posed above in such terms:

  • “What have you enjoyed most about the project?”
  • “What were you engaged with this afternoon?
  • “How have our policies helped you with that?”
  • “What attracted you to buying that?”
  • “What did you learn here?”
  • “What ideas do other people have?”
  • “What are the resources we need to get this done?”
  • “What’s the best thing about how this is going?”
  • “How could we turn this into an asset?”

Now these are open questions that invite people to describe their experience in positive terms! There is simply no way to answer these questions without elaboration. In the end, they will probably get out the same information as the closed and prescriptive questions. But they will first get out a whole lot more that will prove to be of great value to both the relationship and the task.

That’s because open and descriptive questions invite people to open up and describe their experience. Great questions evoke great answers that take time to get out. If you are wondering as to whether or not you are capably using Appreciative Inquiry, just notice who is doing more of the talking. If the person asking the questions is doing more of the talking, then chances are they are working with closed and prescriptive questions.

Appreciative Inquiry avoids that trap by getting people to open up about the things that are working (the things they are accomplishing, learning, and/or enjoying). For that to happen, great questions need to be followed by great listening. Even great questions can be off putting when too many are asked in rapid succession. Better to follow each question with attention, empathy, and reflective listening statements if we hope to encourage self-expression and self-efficacy.

That’s the promise of open questions and careful listening. They build capacity for change and growth; they evoke the stories that make life worth living; they establish a positive bond between those asking the questions and those giving the answers; they invite dialogue more than debate; they generate new possibilities and solutions; they uncover a bigger picture and enable people to play a bigger game.

One could also call this process “appreciative story listening” since we are asking questions that invite people to share, reflect upon, and enhance their stories of success and fulfillment. AI speaks of this as the Poetic Principle, since getting people to tell their stories generates endless interpretive possibilities as in a good poem. By asking appreciative questions and listening for the stories people tell, including the stories behind the stories, we conspire with people in the construction of meaning, memory, and moxie. We become collaborators in the narrative creation of positive, new directions.

Once people discover new stories to tell, once the narratives change, it’s only a matter of time before the social construction of reality catches up. By asking open, descriptive questions and listening attentively to the answers we are not only sowing the seeds of change • we are watering, fertilizing, and lighting the seeds in order to promote their growth. That’s why it’s so important to master the art of inquiry. It cannot be rushed and it cannot be reduced to a 5-point Likert scale. It can only be realized in the empathetic and nonjudgmental hearing of the stories people have to tell.

The extension of empathy and the suspension of judgment are hard skills for many people to master, and yet they are essential to both AI and to open questions. Questions are not truly open, regardless of the form they take, if they are accompanied by overt displays or even suggestive hints of dismissal, disrespect, ridicule, or retaliation. Environmental toxins such as these are the enemy of AI. Empathy and safety, on the other hand, are the environmental allies open questions require to work their magic of personal and social transformation.

Coaching Inquiries: Is it easier for you to ask closed or open questions? How could you become more aware of the questions that you ask and your impact on people? What is the mood of the people around you? What are they accomplishing? How could you broker an appreciative makeover in your environment? How could your questions become part of a transformational process?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..

The material on Appreciative Inquiry is very good stuff! It really ties in well with the philosophy that I always purport to people. “Focus only on the things you want, and nothing on the things you don’t want.” It’s short, precise, and to the point.

Great Provision on Discovering Great Stories! Your words are extremely accurate in practice and in theory. My Counseling & Psychology professor often says “Fast is slow” when working with clients and their story to achieve deep and lasting change.

Your last Provision brought to mind the movie “What the Bleep Do We Know?” If you haven’t seen it, you might want to give it a shake. It’s fairly recent and is available on DVD. It asks more questions than it answers but they’re good questions to ask. (Ed. Note: I own the DVD Click! The movie definitely raises questions that are related to last week’s Provision. Thanks for pointing out the connection.)

Could you send me a source for the bowling story you included in Provision #439? I have shared it with clients many times since reading it, and would love to know the original source. (It’s on page 23 in the book Looking for the Good Stuff by Bob New & Kathleen Rich-New. Go There)

I recently came across a wonderful new book that I thought you would find of great interest, “Lengthen Your Line: The 5 Cs for Exceptional Performance in the Game of Life” by a top sports psychologist Click. Powerful mental skills and strategies, stories, and quotes for life/business coaches and their clients. Good breathing. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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