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Questions Cafe

Last week I co-hosted an Art of Hosting in Edmonton, Alberta. With a lovely team — Beth, Marg, and Hugh Sanders from Edmonton, Diana Smith from Victoria, BC. A great group of participants — 38 educators, county and municipal leaders, city planners. People dedicated to good work, the land, family, and applied learning at next levels of leadership. It was great to host there, my home town and place that I lived the first twenty years of my life. I was even able to work in an Open Space session with the principle and vice principle of what used to be my elementary school as a young lad in the 60s.

On the second day of this three day training, participants hosted a questions cafe. It was hosted to help all of us develop the core leadership capacity of asking good questions. To name a few that are shaping our respective work, and to further understand the qualities of good questions. The tone of this cafe, and this practice, is one of shaping inquiry — “the answers are the questions.” It supported one of the main themes for this training — unleashing ingenuity.

Initiated by the question, “What are the questions we are not asking that prevent us from seeing further possibility?” we sat in three rounds of World Cafe and harvested from there. Bubbling up for me were what I found the following list of types of good questions. Each similar. Yet also, each helpful ways to name and invite people into a deeper reflectiveness as individuals and teams.

Types of Good Questions

  1. “Wait-a-minute” — The ones that make us pause and realize there is more to discover.
  2. “Sit-on-it” — Questions that can’t be answered when they are asked. They require some time to think, and perhaps even let go of for a time.
  3. “Address-the-grand-assumption” — Or as Hani, one of the participants challenged, address even the smaller assumptions. Karen, one participant from a team of county planners, asked this type of question regarding her work — “well, when did we start believing that we needed to pave all of our roads?” She was thinking systemically, aware of the cost and resource implications of that assumption.
  4. “Name-the-elephant” — The unspoken that many people know and feel, and that if left unaddressed, renders the work less meaningful or real. Arguably blocked and ineffective.
  5. “Still-cooking” — The ones that keep us actively learning. Or even better, reaching, stretching, letting go, reorganizing, innovating. I found this in this cafe as I further explored best practices (things like marketing decisions), as well as field practices (things like non-local effects). The latter from the awareness that many of us were describing big dreams and projects that feel like they run into walls of systemic resistance. Or that seem to not have much impact. The belief we were exploring, named as the impact of a morphogenic field, was that even running into a wall in one area of work can have a non-local effect, increasing the likelihood that another seemingly unrelated bit of work will be successful. Like the way the 4-minute mile was forever a significant barrier broken by nobody, yet, once accomplished, was broken by many.
  6. “Antenna-out” — Yes, another variation of continuous learning and attention giving. But even further, an invitation to be learning on behalf of the whole. One participant, Marilyn Hamilton, offered this focus. Her book, Integral Cities, which offers really great learning on hive behavior in human organizing, is a helpful read.
  7. “Me/I” — These shift responsibility back to fundamental accountability and relationship of us as individuals, rather than unintentionally being lost in the bigness of we or them questions. I’ve seen this shift many times. Me/I questions harvest what emerges in expansive thinking to give clarity and responsibility of first next steps of action.

I can imagine the invitations. “So, are there any wait-a-minute questions that would help us go to the next level?” “Are there any sit-on-it questions that we could clarify on behalf of our work?”

Many thanks to the participant hosting team and those I was able to sit with in this cafe.

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