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Strategic Questioning



This article is my summary of Fran's booklet "Strategic Questioning: An Experiment in Communication of the Second Kind," compiled from talks she gave in 1988-1992. The quotes and strategic question examples are from her article. I've dropped all the ellipses to ease reading. You can find the full, excellent booklet online here.. There is also a free pdf of a later long article on the subject at - Tom Atlee


Strategic questioning addresses the question: "How can we participate in the creation of change?"

Strategic questioning assumes that the direction and energy for change is contained in the people involved in the situation, but that it must be brought to the surface and helped to ripen, individually and collectively. Strategic questions are designed to do that.

So if you want to know what needs doing, ask those involved. If it is your own personal problem, ask yourself. And then listen, deeply. "What will it take for us to begin listening deeply to each other?" (This is a good strategic question, by the way...)

"We truly listen if we sense ourselves to be in danger. Imagine, for example, that there is a murderer at large and we are alone in bed in the middle of the night and there is a noise downstairs. At times like these, we stop moving, our entire body, inside and out becomes very still until nothing is left but a heartbeat. Even our breathing becomes inaudible. Our concentration is focused totally on the sound. Animals, sensing danger, stop in their tracks and literally prick up their ears to listen.... We need to listen as if our lives depend on it."
    (from "Matsumoto News: A Newsletter by Karen Hagberg; March 1990)


Any strategic question worthy of the name has many possible answers. In any case, if you are asking a strategic question, never assume you know the answer, or you won't hear the real answers when they emerge. You won't give them enough space to unfold fully.

The unfolding of good answers is in many ways more important than the answers themselves. During that unfolding, peoples' relationship to the situation comes into focus and evolves - and the WILL to create change emerges. Any answer's power derives only from the truth and passion that lie buried in the heart of the answerer. The power of the question itself is merely its leverage in releasing that truth and passion into the world.

"There is a real competence that can be learned in schools, but the wisdom, experience and will to make change, as well as to create the environment and culture for change is in all of us."

That's what strategic questioning activates.

The supreme test of a strategic question is the change that ultimately happens as a result of it. A strategic question involves us and all potential answerers "in the innate, spontaneous imagery which organically draws us forward to appropriate realities of the future. Strategic questioning is a context-altering process since the asking of questions opens up alternatives in a social context, as well as giving the political worker ideas about which strategies are imbedded in the society they are working in."

Some people (including social change workers) see themselves as "more important and powerful and wiser than others," and believe that their job is to inform and motivate everyone else. "The motivation model assumes that I see the appropriate place you (or we) could be and that if only you (or we) move there, that would be an appropriate place for us to be. Whereas I believe that the most appropriate place for us to be is in relationship with each other, acknowledging that you sense reality from your perspective and that a natural confluence in our relationship will bring us to an appropriate place which I, in true humility, don't yet fully know."

This NOT KNOWING is an essential ingredient in strategic questioning. "Most of the questions we were taught in school are questions that deal with information that's already known. 'Why is the sky blue?' "What is four times four?' A strategic question is a question that brings forth NEW INFORMATION."

"What we know of life is only where we have decided to rest with our questioning. We can operate with what we know: but we can be sure of one thing - somewhere someone is not resting at that state of knowing; they are researching and questioning - working on a new discovery."


Movement and Leverage

"Whenever we're doing strategic questioning, we're always looking for the motion. [It helps people] go past the edge of what they know about themselves and discover new aspects."

Fran notes that some questions are more powerful, have more leverage than others. "A good strategic question opens the options up. A long lever question opens up more possibility for motion than a short lever question. 'Why don't you move to Sydney?' would be a short lever question. A longer lever question would be 'Where do you feel you'd like to move?' or 'What is the meaning of this move in your life?'"

"The most important skill in strategic questioning is that of looking for action in static communication, being able to recognize movement and the intention for movement - and then feeding that perception back to the person involved. What would our world be like if every time we were listening to a gripe session, someone would ask, 'I wonder what we can do to change that situation?' and then listened carefully for the answers and helped that group begin to work for change?" (That last sentence, which contains a strategic question, is, itself, a strategic question.)


The Questioner's Answers

It is usually important for the questioner to be aware that their own answers to the question may not be helpful to the questionee. Their answers can close the other person off from their own fullest thinking and feeling and short-circuit whatever answers might be bubbling up in them. If more needs to be said, it is usually more helpful to ask further strategic questions to ripen the inquiry further, than to chime in with your own two cents worth.

This doesn't mean always suppressing your own opinion. "It only means that you carry your opinions in a way that does not interfere with dialogue, respect and co-creation of alternatives."


Opening Up Options

Strategic questioning assumes that "the world is far more complex and exciting than two options would indicate; but having two options creates the idea that a decision, however limited, is being made." A strategic questioner tries to get beyond that.

"A friend whose daughter had run away was trying to decide whether to let her get on the train in a few hours, or to go to the train and insist that she come home. We worked at that level for a while, and then a new option came up - why not run away with the daughter and take the twelve hours on the train to sort things out."


Change Views

"Individuals and societies have discrete views of how change happens." This is their "change view" and the strategies they are willing to use will come out of that. So it is important to ask them what changes they have seen and how they explain them.

"People who mention educational campaigns are the most likely to put money and energy into educational campaigns. Those mentioning law suits will support challenges in court. Writers think of change as coming from popular articles, and so forth."


Strategic Questioning in India

"When an Indian friend asked me to help him clean up the Ganges River, I knew I had no experience cleaning up rivers. [So] when I first went to India I used strategic questioning. 'How do you explain what you see in the river?' 'How do you explain the situation with the river to your children?' I was looking for their cultural wiring around the river. People didn't say 'Oh, I see the river's polluted.' It would be a cultural insult. [Instead] I'd hear something like 'the river is holy, but she is not pure. We are not taking care of her the way she needs us to.'"

"To understand their change view, I asked them how [their liberation from the British] had happened. I got the strategies for change (satyagraha, fasting, direct action, marching to the capitol, etc.) that are embedded in their culture [which they then] translated for me to the specific situation of the pollution in the river."

She also asked: "How are you preparing your children to clean up the river?" Everyone answered "Nothing." "Now their great love of the river and the void in their answers to that question could not long exist in the same minds. The dissonance was too great." The result: about a week later someone grabbed Fran out of the shower with "a great idea: 'We're going to have a poster painting contest for the kids. We'll have all the kids in Benares draw posters about what they see regarding the health of the river. And we'll hang the winning posters up at a large musical event. The adults will see what the children see and be embarrassed.'"

"A powerful question [like that] has a life of its own. It started chiselling away. The question created the dissonance, people organically started answering, and a new idea came. Since it was their idea, they had enthusiasm around it. We have had poster contests almost every year for the eleven years we have been working. And that's an example of what a strategic question is, it creates new ideas. Questions are alive."

"Often a very powerful question will not have an answer at the moment it is asked, but will sit rattling in the mind for days or weeks as the person works on an answer. So don't be disappointed if a great question does not have an answer right away. The seed is planted, the answer will grow."


The Emperor's New Questions

One of Fran's favorite stories illustrating strategic questioning is 'The Emperor's New Clothes.' In it, a king (and everyone else) is tricked into thinking that two weavers are weaving magic cloth. The con men say anyone who can't see the finery they're weaving is inadequate as a person - and a bad worker, as well. So the king dresses up in this nothingness (which neither he nor anyone else will acknowledge not seeing) and parades down the street until a child asks "Why doesn't the king have any clothes on?"

Fran comments that "a whole bunch of other strategic questions could have followed the child's key question. A strategic question is often an unaskable question. It really challenges the values [and assumptions] that the whole issue rests on."

Fran, whose "favorite question is 'what would it take for you to change on this issue?'" imagines "someone going up to the king and saying 'What would it take for you to give up your clothes fetish and participate in values more for the common good of our community?'" Or the townspeople might ask each other:

"How come he's the only one to wear fancy clothes like this? Can we all wear nothing?

"Do we need a king who can't tell if he's got clothes on or not?

"What are the values of this society?

"What part did we play in this delusion?

"How can we stop colluding with the king (because we can't afford many more fraudulent clothes schemes)?

"In these questions are the seeds of revolution, of inner change inside the individual, inside the various groups, and inside the society."


How to Design Strategic Questions

Strategic questions can:

  • find where attention is focused: e.g., "What are you most concerned about in your community?"
  • clarify what is seen or known: "What effects of this situation have you noticed?" ("Notice: I do not refer to the situation as a problem for that may work against creative thinking.")
  • clarify what is felt: "What sensations do you have in your body when you think or talk about this situation?"
  • identify ideals, dreams and values: "What about this situation do you care so much about?"
  • identify the change view: "What will it take to bring the current situation towards the ideal?"
  • evoke personal involvement: "What do you like to do that might be useful in bringing about these changes?"
  • get something started: "Who do you need to talk to?"

Note: Questions later in the above list tend to be longer-levered than questions nearer the beginning.

Things to avoid:

  • 'why' questions - which tend to rationalize the present rather than explore options
  • disguised suggestions ("Have you considered....") which are manipulative
  • yes/no questions - which wrap up without generating real exploration
  • closed questions - which limit our sense of possibility. Feel the increasing openness of the following questions: "Why don't you work on poverty?" "What keeps you from working on poverty?" "What would need to be different, for you to work on poverty?" What kind of support would help you work on poverty?


Strategic Questioning and Societal Intelligence (comments by Tom Atlee)

The above makes a clear case for the usefulness of strategic questioning by organizers and other social change agents to help citizens generate change. Obviously, strategic questioning would also be useful in meeting facilitation, conflict resolution, counselling and any number of other person-to-person and group situations.

Beyond these, I see strategic questioning as a model for the kind of responsible collective inquiry that, in an intelligent society, would be institutionalized. There would be ways for communities to generate questions like these for shared exploration in various forums - talk shows, public dialogues, salons, man-on-the-street interviews published in the paper, etc. As an intermediate step, we could get strategic questioning into the hands of EXISTING public dialogue groups so that they could pose better questions than the old debating-style "Should or should not the United States bomb Iraq back into the stone age?"

In Sweden the government occasionally asks citizens to gather in Study Circles to research a public policy question and feed back to officials their informed judgments (not just ignorant "public opinion"). The same model could be used with strategic questioning.

Political parties could found themselves on this kind of inquiry - promoting and even doing the previously-mentioned forms of dialogue; inviting opponents to join in such dialogues instead of debates; inviting the public to challenge candidates and officials with such questions in public; etc.

Churches and community groups could sponsor activities like this. Community colleges and primary and secondary schools could teach people how to do strategic questioning (it is something that takes learning and practice - and it can transform the way people think). Computer networks could generate strategic Q&A conferences (what would an interactive hypermedia strategic Q&A database look like?).

In short, this one pattern - strategic questioning - has a thousand potential applications. It's internal logic is congruent with that of collective intelligence. What would have to happen for strategic questioning dialogue to replace debate as a preferred model of collective inquiry?


America is not people who fly their flags out in the open.
It is people who ask their questions out in the open.
America is a conversation
that takes form around a whole set of questions
that are not easily asked...
so that it takes courage and the commitment of many lives
to ask them properly and ask them well.
May the courage of our questions make us sane.

-- Michael Bridge <>




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