listening for the questions

Politics of fear is dangerous.

500 mad people in a room? They are there because they care about something.

Monday October 22, I attended an Appreciative Inquiry course by Bliss Brown. It was all about asking assumption-free questions and listening to the answers.

These are my (mostly point form) notes from the day. For more information visit the Imagine Chicago website and their workshop course materials.


make it meaningful

This is about helping people make meaning about the future.

In consultation processes, slow down enough to deliberate but make the process valuable enough to make it worthwhile.

No one is expert in this and it’s not a high risk.

Life gives random data. We categorize to make sense of it. Conflict arises when different people have assigned different meanings to the same things.

We live out of what we believe: How we organize our thoughts; How they organize our life.

Ask a question you would appreciate being asked. Others probably would too.

Ask a question with meaning in their lives and creates a feeling of safety and connection – so they feel they belong.

make sure everyone matters

How do we help people do this in a way that everyone matters?

“Justice” is deciding who is included and who can we tolerate neglecting.

We organize public meetings around problems and problem makers. How does that foster your needs for meaning and belonging?

500 mad people in a room? They are there because they care about something.

Anger is a feeling that something needs to be different. Honour it.

build trust

Ask questions. Allow people to answer and consider. We have a tendency to short circuit this by answering the question ourselves. Allow space and time for others to share their ideas and engage.

Ask a question that people care about – that actually impacts their lives.

Build trust. The process has to have integrity. Don’t ask questions if you don’t want to consider the answers.

How will the input be used?

People need to see their imprint, even if their idea didn’t prevail. Value their contribution.

“How much confidence do I have?” versus “what gives me confidence?”

As soon as I have identified myself in public, I have to defend that identity (or idea). “I pretty much have to defend…” Don’t force people to say or identify themselves as ‘for’ or ‘against’.

examples of effective methods

“It’s a myth that this takes a lot of time. It’s simply not true.” Here are some examples of time-efficient ways to involve a large group of people in a meaningful conversation.

The Speed Dating method is a way of answering questions in a large group. If there are four questions you want all participants to answer, split them into groups of four. One question is assigned to each person. Participants are paired. They interview each other, write down the answers, then switch partners. Everyone then forms new groups – one for each question. They share the ideas and information that came out of the answers; look for profound new ideas, patterns, etc.

It often helps to invite people to use words and pictures when describing their visions.

“Here we are in the wilderness with nothing but our questions to guide us and each other as traveling companions.”

Now: what do we not want? What are we moving away from?
Future: What are we moving towards? What do we want?

The Wall of Wonder method works well with youth: Map out efforts that have been made and what they’re working from and towards. What is it like now? Include things that adults wouldn’t understand. What is your experience? What do you want it to be? What would the community need to be in the future so you’ll want to raise your children here? Use words and pictures, draw a bridge between them (where you are, where you want to be). Compare the two. Talk about how to build that bridge; it creates understanding of each other’s ideas, initiatives, efforts, etc.

The Portrait of Strength gives people a place. It is a good icebreaker and takes just 5 minutes.

  • Head: tell me about something you know about?
  • Heart: tell me about something you care about?
  • Hands: tell me about something you love to do with your hands?
  • Feet: what can people count on you for? Where do you stand?

How often does anyone say who they are? Getting people to be seen, register their values, sends the message that “it matters that they came.”

Use any four questions. It is a method for getting everyone’s ideas and thoughts, but requires the leader to be flexible because what comes out of it might not be what was intended or expected.


“When we get our dreams trampled, we shut down… at least in this relationship.”

Introduce each other as a hope or dream. It creates an atmosphere of equality – no one is more important. Everyone shares, everyone can share. “Don’t tell them how important you are.” Participants can be asked to not talk about how important they are.

Normally, writing down the answers slows down the process. The methods described here are self-documenting. Everyone’s ideas gets recorded concurrently and there is no staff recording secretary necessary.

think together

Ask questions constructed around why you’re there. Asking questions is an invitation. Where the topic or strategy might not be interesting, the questions might be.

“We’re much more accustomed to negotiating agendas than thinking together.”

How much do we trust our communities to do their own work? The experience of normal people is that there is a series of impediments to them participating – bureaucratic processes.

make it interesting, make it fun

What would make this fun?

Advice of an 8 year old: If you make your meetings funnest, people will want to go to them. Ask yourself when reading the agenda, “would I go to this meeting if I didn’t have to?” People would want to go if it’s a learning event and because it’s meaningful.

The reason you’re here is you want to help people “do the one thing that they must do.” It’s a muli-function calculation because everyone has different things they need to get done (perceived critical need). Otherwise, a meeting is just a distraction. You must align vision with action.

learn together

She described an example from Chicago. Schools were struggling to engage and inspire students. Museums were struggling to demonstrate their relevance. They each had bureaucratic excuses for not getting students engaged with museums. But really, working together, they could fulfill each other’s need. Museums have to shift from curatorial institutions to those of learning and outreach.

We’re here in a spirit of inquiry, then to act on what we learn.

Step 1: Find out the questions people are asking. Answers are an invitation to posture.

Use constructive (positive) questions. They should reinforce confidence or past success. Using people’s own experience stretches the frame of reference of what is possible.

make connections

Ask, what question would you like to be asked? She told a story of a conservative middle aged Caucasian woman who wanted to talk with people about discrimination and understand what racism felt like, so she dyed her hair bright purple. She wanted people to ask her, why are you so different? She created the opportunity for people to ask her the question she wanted to be asked.

Make connections: connect stories; create a process for people to make the connections between themselves.

honour each person’s experience

When asking questions, be careful to honour people’s choices and experience.

“We” is an assumption. It imposes an opinion on others, and that might offend someone.

“Why” often ends up in looking for blame.

“Will” invites a yes or no answer. It’s likely that some people will not say ‘no’ and risk a confrontation.

“Politics of fear is dangerous.”

honour the past, present & future

Push – how are things are different?
Pull – what inspires our action? What do we want to head towards?

Why do you do what you do? Answers will almost certainly be centred in the present. Without future it doesn’t inspire public to get involved.

Tradition (conservative voice) says, this works, it is something that has worked in the past.

You only get to the future from process.

Different people have different preferred perspectives – past, present and future. To involve the whole spectrum of community, you have to move people concerned about the past, present and future. Look for the overlap. What connects each?

The future often emerges from the best of the past.

“People like us” is a circle of reference, a place of comfort.

inspiration –> action
Balance the dynamic: refresh by asking, “what are we really trying to achieve?” Where are we going?

Need to ask questions that engage each of these competencies – the past, present and future thinkers.

start with people who already care

How does what we’re doing connect with what they’re already thinking about?

Too often we start by trying to convert people who don’t care rather than starting with people who already care. Look for the others, beyond the typical audience, who care.

Build on the networks and institutions already in place. Look for the natural connections you already have.

/* There is a Citizen Leadership Workshop available on the Imagine Chicago website.

look for the positive

Does the public process have a culture of blessing or curse?

Cynicism passes as sophistication in our society, but cynicism erodes hope, is poisonous to hope.

Look for a time when the impossible has already been achieved.

She described a time when working with people who felt uninspired and defeated. She asked, what are God’s dreams for Chicago? What is our resistance to them? How do we get there from here?

The future is the only domain in which real freedom is possible.

We have a tendency to offer answers without wanting to admit that we don’t know.

nurture a culture of caring

When she became inspired to begin this work, she described it at the time as being “pregnant with a child named Grace.”

As parents and caring people, we feel compelled to help a child against any challenge or risk that’s coming at them and to teach them.

Model the practice of constructive public talk. Focus. Claim what matters to us. Move towards it. Defend it.

Build a space where people matter.

Ask someone to “tell me what’s wrong with you” The result will be anger. They will be defensive and competitive. Public processes must not create this, must have the opposite effect. So, ask the opposite question, build on strengths or toward future vision.

Compare that with this question: What do you have to contribute?

We are not cynical with our children. Involve children in the process. They have lots to contribute to the process and their presence helps keep the adults on good behaviour.

“Language is a moral choice.”

“I can tell, because you’re angry, that you’re talking about something you don’t want.” What is it you do want? How is that different? What does it look like?

move from negative to positive – –> +
What is the one thing you really want? Write it down privately. Ask if anyone’s willing to read it out.

Move from grief to hope, grief to dream.

This is not about merely talking about pleasant things. Keep focused on the dream/vision – what they say they care about most.

Acknowledge negative voices (obstinate or angry) as voices that represents valid fears or concerns.

be responsible for yourself

Love yourself in fullness otherwise you risk judging the parts of yourself you don’t like, projecting that judgment on other people.

A participant asked how Imagine Chicago was different from Imagine Calgary.

Imagine Chicago is completely separate from the city. Calgary’s is political, city lead. The risk in a city lead process is that people might not think of their dreams. They’ll use the forum to complain about annoyances. Also, responsibility for implementation is assumed to be the city’s. But when Calgary passed responsibility for implementation to others, it was confusing for people.

The purpose is the same: Hope and engagement


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