Questions can be revolutionary because they invite the human mind to explore and reflect.
Questions may reinforce domination, or, questions can be liberating. When finely crafted, questions can help people draw from their experience to build meaning and learning. As a facilitator, I find questions can upturn domination and reorganise whose mind is centred and amplified. We are all learning the skills of organising. Our contexts are complex and require constant reflection and learning. We can use questions better to help our friends and collaborators learn deliberately and effectively.
In this article I outline different approaches to questions that I have learnt over the years as an organiser, facilitator and social worker. These frameworks have valuable insights for social change.
Learning from Old Masters
I recently re-explored Fran Peavey’s Strategic Questioning Manual. I was delighted to find there, Peavey inquiring – with the Lismore community in the 1980’s – about rivers, levies and floods. This site of Peavey’s community practice is still bearing fruit expressed through tremendous post-flood community participation.
Strategic questioning offers questions as tools for inquiry, for the exploration of one to one organising conversations, coaching, planning and decision making. Peavey arranges eleven different kinds of questions that help surface wisdom, insights and agency from the people who are questioned.
Peavey’s work shaped my early facilitation learning, as did the work of Glen Ochre. I was fortunate to be sort of apprenticed to Glen Ochre at Commonground, the community she founded. Glen, like Fran, was an expert questioner. A trained social worker and counsellor, Glen delved deep into people’s experience. She developed the ‘Community of Selves’ framework to help people understand how they might be derailed by their early experiences and socialisation as they manoeuvre complex behaviours in groups.
Experiential vs Analytical Questions
Glen Ochre first taught me the difference between an experiential question and an analytical question. I loved the clear distinction and both theorists made it. The experiential question is directed at the person’s life and is more likely to result in a story-describing experience.
- “Does anyone have an experience of good facilitation: have a think? What was happening?
- Can you describe what you saw happening?”
As a set of people share experiences, those attending listen and draw commonalities and begin themselves to notice what is significant. Each mind works in its own way to understand and make sense of the stories.
The analytical question, however assumes people have already processed and shifted experience to higher order thinking. And that they already have frameworks, lists and criteria ready for presentation: “What are the criteria for good facilitation?” invites the participant to skip over body and presence, to ‘analysis’.
The problem is, different ‘cultures’ analyse and order their thinking in quite different ways. And even then, not everyone has curated their lists ready for expression.
Inquiry can draw out powerful personalised storytelling. But too often, in our over-colonised society, inquiry is preloaded with concepts already formulated, articulated and conceptualised.
When we start and persist with analytical questions we frequently push out the minds of people who don’t use that language, who don’t prefer or use those particular conceptualisations. People from different social groups, language groups and cultures, can have quite different ways of thinking and conceptualising their experience and knowledge.
Because many of us have been primed to preference the thinking of the ‘dominating group’, to start with it, and build on it, we can easily then forge on dropping references to the extraordinary knowledges of those around us, whose voices are erased, or made secondary.
Alternatively we can build the knowledge out from the perspectives of those ‘least likely to be known or heard’. Doing this we truly value each person, we amplify the thinking of new people, we are able to incorporate the knowledge each person brings, we find out about how each person thinks and expresses themselves, and we draw people in quickly to knowledge-building and action because we are building the action upon their own knowledge.
The Strengths Approach
The ‘Strengths Approach’ offered a micro-method for experiential questioning. I learned the strengths approach from Wayne McCashen at St Luke’s Bendigo. McCashen applied it to both client work and community collective practice. It challenged notions of knowledge and expertise. Addressing power imbalances was central: the first whole day of a 4 day introduction explored the idea of “power over” and the domination practices of the mainstream. I had encountered “power with” ideas almost a decade earlier in Starhawk’s work. Starhawk emphasised flat, less hierarchical organising. The strengths approach was squarely placed as a challenge to expert-patient models in community services and mental health practice.
Reviewing the work now, I can see how ordinary people’s experience is central. The ‘client’ was the ‘marginalised’ voice being pulled into the centre.
- “How are you already living that picture of the future?”
- “What is going well?”
- “Where are things working for you?”
- “Who is in the picture being helpful – How are they helpful?”
- And our old favourite: “Where are things not 100% shit?”.
The data gathered to shape solutions, comes out of people’s descriptions of everyday experiences. When people are less focussed on how terrible they are as a person, they can think about their future in new and imaginative ways. This is a process that centres the lived experience of clients and strongly decentres the expertise of the service worker.
When the strengths approach was applied to community work, the experience and vision of ordinary people of the community were centred while the ideas of leaders and local influencers were decentred.
McCashen was master of the question that seeks ‘concrete description’: a description full of sensory experience:
- what you can see and smell and hear;
- what you may feel;
- what other people are doing and saying.
The question which seeks a concrete description moves people’s minds to what is real, what is actual, what is physical, even if it is in the future!
Questions for Inclusion and Liberation
Peavey’s work weaves around ‘power’ as a force unleashed by a good question: the activation of the human mind to solutions. “It can empower people to create strategies for change” (Peavey, 1989).
Questions unleash revolutionary change – they enable people to find a course for action.
Today, we live in an age where we are becoming more consistently aware of intersectionality and domination in all our interactions and groups settings. As we invite people to join us in our social change endeavours – taking climate action, creating new programs, building a vision and strategy for action, wielding power – we must master the micro practices which upturn the domination practices we have been socialised into. To offer people a place of belonging, and for them to take up space, we must be super inclusive.
Some of us have been socialised in harsh ways by the colony. We are steeped in domination practices. We are called out by our First Nations friends and colleagues to centre experiences and ideas of those that are least heard and most expert in their own lives and perspectives: First Nations people; women; non binary and trans people; people with experiences of violence and war; people subject to enforced economic disadvantage and dislocation.
For me at this point of time, the revolutionary aspect of questions is how they can be used in a group by facilitators to create inclusion, unsettle domination and allow us to hear people, and reorganise who is centred in any space.
For me this is the liberatory power of the question. We can build stories, narratives, conceptualisations and knowledge around those previously likely to be marginalised. We can use questions to centre the voices of those most affected in any situation, those who have important knowledge buried in experience. We can amplify and refer to the voices of people we don’t usually hear from.
For example, if I am inquiring about people’s experience of taking up public space, disrupting, I will invite young people and people new to the activity to speak first. And I will inquire into their experiences of connection and sense-of-power. We want to hear their descriptions before they are crowded out by dominant narratives. We want to centre those experiences and conceptualisations because they are important perspectives and offer rich information.
Peavey hints at this in her introduction.
A question, she says, “opens both of us to another point of view”. But what if we start with that point of view and build the ensuing conversation around it?
Micro Skills, Meetings and Workshops
As we shift into cultural groups that reject domination practices some people might flounder with appropriate interpersonal interactions. Socialised patterns of behaviour which do not favour a diversity of ways can reinforce domination patterns in a group: We hear from the same people first and loudest, in the same ways. We might be stuck in arguments and polemics. The methodologies of the city university or the fancy school take over. We know best. Curiosity about others disappears.
We can use questions derived from theory to evolve our collective practice as organisers, to look forward – to strategise and plan. Or we can use questions to look back and evaluate. The strengths approach is a way of inviting people to think about what is ‘working’ and to build capacity from that pragmatic base. Where and how are we doing this? How are we on track with our plans? What parts of our objective did we meet? How did we do this?
I have a set of preferred skills and processes for encouraging inclusion: a toolbox with varied question frameworks. I’ve grouped them below in three sets:
- Micro skills
- Questions for workshops and learning
- Questions for evaluation and planning.
Micro skills from the toolbox can be adopted without checking with others, with much transparency. These are simply respectful interactions and potentially less dominating. ‘Workshop’ processes are more complex and might be more likely negotiated with the people involved. If processes are made transparent, participants can adopt them, learn from them, or reject them. Evaluation and research processes can be complex and usually thoughtfully prepared and planned.
Micro skills and processes
- Awareness and being present
- Listening without shaping
- Open questions versus closed questions
- Experiential versus analytical questions
- Inquiring about values and significance
- Questions for concrete description
- Questions for vision and future.
- Synthesising and Differentiation
Meeting and workshopping for inclusion, connection and learning.
- Check ins – hearing from people
- Open minds processes – hearing from people without looking for an immediate solution
- Pairs to open thinking – followed by group listening of the most interesting revelations
- “Relational meetings” – One to one conversations which reveal motivation and interests
- Building frameworks from conversations for learning
- Outsider witness practices
- Debriefs for complex events and activities
- Questions for teaching and developing independent strategic thinkers.
- Using frameworks (from theory) for exploration and learning
- Projectifying; and questioning to identify project logics
Community based participatory research, evaluation and learning
- Decentralised inquiry – Developing individual research questions
- Using project objectives as a frame for evaluation
- Applying Strengths-based Frameworks to other theoretical frameworks
- Exploring theoretical frameworks for evaluation and development (e.g. Ganz’s frameworks for structuring leadership or Han’s frameworks for movement adaptability)
- Questions drawn from a ‘Strengths Approach’
People using these tools can build their own practice that is iterative and responsive. They will gradually to be able to navigate difficult conversations, conflicts and harms.
This work is not new. We should remember Paulo Freire (1921 – 1997), an educator in 1960s Brazil who developed a theory of experiential education for liberation. His method placed liberation in the centre of ‘praxis’ – experience, reflection and action. Education must be liberating.
Freire’s philosophies of practice have been made central in social change movements across the majority world. Freire was imprisoned for his work because the fruit of his work was people fully participating in movements for justice using a deep understanding of the political conditions they were living with. These people became the independent strategic thinkers who were cornerstones of movements for real and lasting change.
Peavey gets the last word: “Strategic questions are tools of rebellion!”
About the Author
Margie Pestorius is an organiser and educator who works with the Wage Peace Project. She organises for the participation of ordinary people with the things that are important to them, that affect our communities – like climate change and violence. Margie is passionate about grassroots experiential learning and the strength of relationships for creation and effective change-making.
- Strategic Questioning Manual by Fran Peavey
- Getting Our Act Together by Glen Ochre
- The Strengths Approach by Wayne McCashen
- The Five-Fold Path of Productive Meetings by Starhawk
- Working in Groups: Start Here by Commons Library
- Anti oppression work
- Communication in organisations
- Critical thinking
- Cultural understanding
- Group skills