Landscape of Questioning: Find the Response that Fits

Exploring emergent ideas with a colleague today, I asked for feedback about my perspective. She thought a moment and then said, “It’s not for me to tell you an answer, but I can tell you what I see and what that means to me. Then we can figure out what our next question will be.” She then described the patterns she saw in what I was saying and in what I was not saying. She shared her insights about how her perspectives did or did not match mine. When she finished I had a clear picture of where she stood, and I knew more about how her ideas were the same as and different from mine. And I felt no judgment or defensiveness about either. We went on in our conversation, ending with an agreement to continue the exploration together.

Later, I reflected on the gift she had given me. Her feedback had been exactly what I wanted, even though I didn’t know how to ask for it. I thought about times I have asked for feedback and been surprised that what I got was so far from what I thought I was asking for. There have been times I wanted general impressions and got back corrected grammar and checked spelling. And I remember times when I wanted specific directions and got generalizations that were not helpful.

Landscape Diagram
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That made me wonder about different ways of standing in inquiry. How confusing it can be when you stand in the whole landscape of inquiry, unclear about what you want from your questions. Is there one “right” answer, and you just want someone to tell you? Do you want to explore an idea to see what emerges? Do you want to extend your thinking to see what might be possible?

In complex adaptive systems, you live, work, and play in the midst of questions, and it is often difficult to know which ones to ask and answer. With so many forces and differences in a system, you must be clear about ones that matter and how they matter. Standing in inquiry in such a system felt challenging to me, until my colleague’s feedback showed me that it’s about looking for the fit between your questions and tension in the system--her question matched the tension I was feeling.

In HSD we use the Landscape Diagram to picture the sweep of possibility from the lower left corner where everything is agreed upon and certain to the upper right corner where there is neither certainty nor agreement. Knowing where you stand on the landscape helps you consider the questions you ask and the kind of sharing that helps find the best response.

In the lower left corner of the Landscape Diagram, when a question is asked, people agree with each other, and they feel certain about their piece of the world from one moment to the next. The system’s tension comes from the need for predictability and the need to “fit” into the narrow range of system’s agreements and certainties. Answers in that range of the Landscape are known, and the appropriate response is to share answers. Is it right or wrong? What is the answer? How do you do this process? What time does the meeting start? What kind of punctuation do I use here?

In the center of the Landscape Diagram, when a question is asked, there is less agreement and less certainty. Tension in the system comes from the need to influence patterns that serve the system’s purpose in all its parts. You look for the degree to which patterns of thought or action contribute to adaptability of the whole system and its parts. Rather than looking for single answers, your questions are about the patterns you see and the meaning you make of those patterns. You engage with others to learn where they are and to make meaning of that, relative to your own patterns and perspectives. Answers in this range are unknown, but through continuing dialogue and inquiry, your answers emerge as patterns of interaction and decision making. The appropriate response is to use iterations of questions and exchange to share patterns you observe and the meaning you make of them. How are we alike or different? What can we create together? What can I learn from you? How will your influence shape my knowing?

In the upper right-hand corner of the Landscape Diagram, you are in unexplored territory, far from certainty and far from agreement. Tension in the system comes from the need to make meaning and find patterns. When a question is asked, there is no single answer, and no pattern is discernable. Standing in inquiry in this part of the landscape means you watch for ideas, actions, opportunities that may be coherent with the system’s needs. When you are far from certainty and far from agreement, answers are unknowable, and all you can do is hold your questions as frames for exploration. You share questions to build meaning, relative to the systems needs. What is possible for our team? What will my children contribute to the community as they grow? What is the next area of market growth or danger?

How can this Landscape Diagram inform your questions as you stand in inquiry? Here are some tips and traps that might make it most useful for you.

  • Remember that there is no linear progression from one area to another. All exist simultaneously in a given situation, and your questions depend on your needs at any time.
  • What you want depends on the tension that compels you to ask a question. Do you want a right answer? Do you need to understand patterns around you? Do you seek possibilities and meaning? You respond to the tension in the question to find the most useful question.
  • The same is true when you respond. Align your response tension that informs the question.
  • When you give or request feedback, be clear about the tension informs that exchange.
  • Remember that answers can be unknown or unknowable at any given time. They can, however, shift as more information is available, as time passes, and as patterns emerge and change. Return to those questions to explore how they might change over time.

My colleague this morning had no idea that her approach to feedback was exactly what I needed. She could not have known because I didn’t have a way to help her know. Next time, I will be able to know to identify the tension that drives my question, and I can ask the question in a way that draws the more useful response.

How might you use this model/method to inform you as you supervise others? Ask for feedback? Make decisions or take action with your family? Make sense of current events? Let me know if and how this informs your inquiry, wherever you stand.

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