Inquiry IS the Answer

The Power of Questions, also known as Inquiry IS the Answer, is a process of deep inquiry for individuals and groups to find next wise actions to tame wicked issues. The protocol for the process is simple, but each experience of it is unique and insightful. The method includes three steps.

Step 1. Frame the wicked issue in three to five sentences.
Complex systems are open, high dimension, and nonlinear; and the wicked issues they generate can feel overwhelming. Because wicked issues cannot be solved, their troublesome patterns persist, so players create dramatic narratives to explain themselves as heroes and/or victims. Over time, the narratives are reified, and the drama becomes reality. The player feels stuck in the system, and the persistent narrative (ever and always voice) locks them in and keeps them from seeing possibilities for effective action.

When the player writes a brief description of the issue, they condense the essential pattern into an explicit narrative structure. Grammar contains and constrains the overwhelming entities, actions, and characterizations of the issue into a finite set of descriptors. The process of writing focuses attention on a few key variables and relationships, so the problem seems more bounded and, therefore, more tractable.

The description also makes assumptions about the problem explicit. In the short statement, the player can see their assumptions in black and white, so they are accessible for understanding, choice making, and action. The issue is bounded, explicit, and accessible.

Step 2. Receive questions without answering.
Each inquirer is free to ask questions about the wicked issue. The questions are intended to challenge assumptions and release constraints held by the player. To be most effective, questions should:

  • Avoid advice
  • Represent the authentic curiosity of the inquirer
  • Allow multiple, open-ended responses
  • Address and/or challenge underlying assumptions and expectations
  • Draw on information and context that is familiar to the player
  • Demonstrate empathy and support for the player, as a caring human being

In virtual contexts, inquirers are invited to write their questions into chat, and the facilitator calls on each one in order to speak their questions aloud. Writing the questions in chat provides an automatic archive, it also allows the facilitator to minimize distraction simplify interactions.

This process continues for approximately fifteen minutes. This step can have profound effects on both the player and the inquirer.

As the player hears the questions, their mental models are disrupted. The expectations and assumptions and constraints that shaped the issue for them are challenged, either explicitly or implicitly. They begin to see the challenge differently. They are also prompted to think of their own questions that might be deeper and more relevant than those of the inquirers. Because they are not allowed to answer, players confront their own defensive tendencies. They are pushed far-from-equilibrium and into cognitive dissonance. Often memories are sparked. Even more often, new options for action emerge.

As an inquirer generates questions, they push the boundaries of assumptions for the player and themselves. Often they see one or more of their own issues reflected in that of the player. They begin to reflect on their own assumptions and expectations, as they frame supportive questions to share aloud. They analyze the issue, first from the point of view of the player, then from other points of view. What is a felt sense? What about a child’s perspective? How might art or literature help? What is in long-ago history, and what might the future hold? Fast and slow, individual and collective, each question challenges the wicked issue and the player’s understanding of it. Inquirers are also prompted by the questions of others. As they hear questions, they imagine new ones to ask. They also take in the question in relation to their own wicked issue, mirroring the experience of the player.

Step 3. Share reflections, insights, and next wise actions.
In the final step of the process, the facilitator turns again to the player. They talk briefly about what they heard, what they thought, and what they feel prompted to do as a result. Sometimes the player focuses on one or more questions that were most resonant with them. Sometimes they describe their experience of receiving questions or share questions they generated in response. Often the player describes a sense of release or expansion or hope, as their prior constraints are challenged and new opportunities emerge.

When the player is complete, others in the group may be invited to share their reflections and responses to the experience. Frequently they, too, discover transformed perspectives and new options for action. 

Since mid-March 2020, members of the HSD community have met weekdays for 20-minute sessions to practice this process.

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