By Fran Peavey
Strategic questioning is an approach to communication developed by Fran Peavey in the 1980s and 1990s. Strategic questioning is a powerful tool for personal and social change which helps people discover their own strategies and ideas for change. Strategic questioning can be valuable in campaign strategy processes, group consultations, one-to-one organising conversations, coaching and many other contexts.
An excerpt outlining Fran’s ‘question families’ is provided below. The full manual can be downloaded below.
FIRST LEVEL: Describing the issue or problem
WHILE THIS LEVEL does not use strategic questions as such, describing the issue or problem is an important job. We need to gain the facts and points of view of all the main players in order to frame the strategic questions later.
1. FOCUS QUESTIONS
These questions identify the situation and the key facts necessary to an understanding of the issues at stake. When using questioning with an individual, this is the time when the facts of the situation are presented. Questions here focus on understanding the relevant parts of their story. When using Strategic questioning in a community polling process, questions focus on how they think about the particular issue at stake.
The key in framing the questions is to be open and non-partisan in the questions and in the tone of the questioner. It should be an equally valid question for a person no matter what their position is on the issue.
- What aspects of our community life concern you?’
- ‘What do you think about the logging of old growth redwoods?
- How has the violence in our community impacted you?’
- ‘What are you most concerned about in your community?’
2. OBSERVATION QUESTIONS
These questions are concerned with what one sees and the information one has heard regarding the situation.
- ‘What do you see?’
- ‘What do you hear?’
- ‘What have you heard and read about this situation?’
- ‘Which sources do you trust and why?’
- ‘What effects of this situation have you noticed in people, in the earth?’
- ‘What do you know for sure and what are you not certain about?’
3. ANALYSIS QUESTIONS
These questions focus on the meaning given to events. Here the questioner is trying to ascertain how a person thinks about the situation, what motivation is ascribed to key participants in the story and the relation of individuals and events. ‘Why’ questions are appropriate here. You are still gathering information and there is usually little motion in your questions – but you might be surprised. Sometimes these questions trigger strong feelings, or unanticipated motion.
- ‘What do you think about ….?’
- ‘What are the reasons for …. ?’
- ‘What is the relationship of ……to …….?’
4. FEELING QUESTIONS
These questions are concerned with body sensations, emotions and health. It is important not to skip over these questions. Feelings often interfere with thinking, trust and imagination. Listening to and honouring the personal consequences of an event or issue is important in freeing the person to think about the area.
You do not have to fix the feelings … you can’t. Simply listen respectfully and when you sense the person is ready, move on. They may return to this level from time to time naturally. Some people may wish to spend very little time in the feeling level, while others may get lost in feeling and need some encouragement to move into a more dynamic discussion.
- ‘What sensations do you have in your body when you think or talk about this situation?’
- ‘How do you feel about the situation?’
- ‘How has the situation affected your own physical or emotional health?’
SECOND LEVEL: Strategic Questions. Digging deeper.
NOW WE START asking questions that increase the motion. The mind takes off, creating new information, synthesising, moving from what is known into the realm of what could be. Here you find more long-lever questions.
5. VISIONING QUESTIONS
These questions are concerned with identifying one’s ideals, dreams, values. Articulating dreams and visions makes them a bit more real and their power is undeniable. We begin to build a bridge from the anchor of the present into midair. We stop pushing things as they are and focus on how things can develop.
- ‘How would you like it to be?’
- ‘What is the meaning of this situation in your own life?’
6. CHANGE QUESTIONS
These questions are concerned with how to get from the present situation towards a more ideal situation. As future alternatives take form, they are examined. Often the vision is partial but people are able to identify pieces that need to change. Later these specifics can be worked into a cohesive whole. Some people prefer a visioning process before asking specific change questions.
- ‘How could the situation be changed for it to be as you would like it?’
- ‘What will it take to bring the current situation towards the ideal?
- ‘What exactly needs to change here?’
- ‘How might those changes come about? Name as many ways as possible’
- ‘Who can make a difference?’
- ‘What are changes you have seen or read about?’
- ‘How did those changes come about?’(here you are trying to find the individual’s change view which will greatly impact the strategies for change available to the person.)
7. CONSIDER ALL THE ALTERNATIVES
These questions examine the alternatives that come from the vision and ways things need to change. There are many ways to get to any goal. If a person is only examining two alternatives maybe more feeling work needs to be done.
Be sure not to give more time, enthusiasm, or focus to any one alternative even if you think it is the best. Also search out alternatives that seem on first glance to be odd or unusual. These ideas may have the seeds of other more viable alternatives, or suggest other ideas later on.
You may focus on creating alternative visions or alternative ways of achieving the changes mentioned above. Some people will get overwhelmed with questions that ask for all the waysbut will continue to create if you simply request more ideas one at a time. Stay open to new ideas popping up throughout the process.
- ‘What are all the ways you can think of that would accomplish these changes?’
- ‘How could you reach that goal? What are other ways?’
- ‘Be sure to tell me if other ideas come up …’
8. CONSIDER THE CONSEQUENCES
Explore the consequences of each alternative. Conscientiously examine each alternative for personal, environmental, social or political consequences, giving the same amount of time and energy to each alternative. Returning to feeling questions may be beneficial here.
- ‘How would your first alternative affect the others in your group?’
- ‘What would be the effect of using the runoff for your garden?’
- ‘How would you feel doing (name each alternative)?’
- ‘What would be the political effect if you did ….?’
9. CONSIDER THE OBSTACLES
Each alternative has things in the way of being achieved. Identify the obstacle, and how to deal with it if the alternative were selected. Focusing on obstacles is an important first step in removing them. Obstacles may be addictions, values or needs. It is more useful to focus on what keeps a person, group, or institution from changing rather than pressuring them to change. Choices are clearest when the change and the obstacles to change are visible to both the questioner and questionee.
- ‘What would need to change in order for alternative ‘a’ to be done?’
- ‘What keeps you from doing ….?’
- ‘What prevents you from getting involved?’
10. PERSONAL INVENTORY and SUPPORT QUESTIONS
These questions are concerned with identifying one’s interests, potential contribution and the support necessary to act. An important aspect of encouraging change is identifying the support needed to make the change. It may be financial, verbal, or emotional support that is needed.
- ‘How can I support you?’
- ‘What would it take for you to participate in the change?’
- ‘What do you like to do that might be useful in bringing about these changes?’
- ‘Tell me what is special about you.’
- ‘What aspects of the situation interest you the most?’
- ‘What support would you need to work for this change?’
At this point in the questioning a decision may begin to emerge. Check to see if the person you are questioning perceives the decision arriving. If the decision is not apparent, do not force it. Often several days of pondering and several nights of dreaming are needed before clarity comes.
11. PERSONAL ACTION QUESTIONS
These questions are those which get down to the specifics of what to do, and how and when to do it. The actual plan begins to emerge. A questioning relationship may use several time periods to advantage. Sleeping and dreaming help the inner sense ‘true’ the vision and plan. Action questions can also focus on alternative plans and possible outcomes in both the long and short term. Feel free to play with the planning process – remembering that the future is always changing.
- ‘Who do you need to talk to?’
- ‘How can you join a group that is working on this?’
- ‘How can you get others together to work on this?’
Contents of Manual
- Chapter 1 Introduction: Strategic Questions Are Tools Of Rebellion 1
- Chapter 2 Using Strategic Questioning For Individual Growth 8
- Chapter 3 Question Families For Individual Change 10
- Chapter 4 The Use Of Strategic Questioning In Organizational And Social Change Situations 13
- Chapter 5 Question Families In Organizational/Social Change 19
- Chapter 6 Stories Of Strategic Questioning 22
- Chapter 7 Practicing Strategic Questioning 28
- Chapter 8 Go Forth And Question! 30
- For another take on the power of questions see Questioning for learning, co-creation and liberation by Margie Pestorius
- Active listening
- Capacity building
- Communication in organisations
- Conflict Resolution_Management
- Group skills
- Peer coaching