Adopt an attitude of curiosity about life. When we are genuinely curious, we naturally ask generative questions. Such questions:
- Make room for diverse and different perspectives. How do you see it?
- Surface new information and knowledge. How did they manage this process at your previous place of work?
- Stimulate creativity and innovation. What might be possible if we . . .?
When dealing with any issue, even difficult issues, generative questions make unseen information visible and result in conversations that create trust, positive energy, and the transformative power to move the system forward in a desired direction. The result: new ways for solving complex problems and compelling images for collective action. Here is a table from our book, Conversations Worth Having.
Questions Can Do
|Elicit information, stories, ideas, and perspectives|
|Allow strengths to show up|
|Show us best practices and elements of success|
|Move toward solutions or to information and data that inform possible solutions|
|Identify new ways of thinking, new possibilities, opportunities, and aspirations|
|Inform what we might do, the results we might want|
|Make room for new knowledge, creativity, and innovation|
|Engage those on the sidelines|
Here’s an example that parents of teenagers will easily relate to. Monica, mother of a teenage boy, uses generative questions to change the conversational dynamic with her son. Monica had been in the midst of a recurring argument with her son, Aiden. She was tired of the same old interaction that never produced a way forward. Aiden wanted to borrow the car over the weekend to go ‘do things’ with his friends, and Monica didn’t like the idea of him joyriding with the possibility of getting into trouble. Their critical conversations had created a rift between them, which saddened Monica, but she didn’t know what else to do. Suddenly, in mid-conversation, it occurred to her she could use the practice she’s learned at work for shifting the tone and direction of a conversation. When Aiden started to reiterate the argument, Monica held up her hand, paused and said, “I really do understand why you want the car, and I hope you understand why I’m worried for your safety and well-being. So, how can we have a more productive conversation? How can we come to some agreement that allows you to get the car and me to feel comfortable that you’ll make good decisions, even if your friends are pressuring you?”
Aiden was stopped in his tracks. This time it was his turn to pause, and then they began a brand new conversation that promised to be worthwhile . . . and it was. Monica’s question allowed Aiden to let his mom know he did understand. He shared that sometimes he was glad he hadn’t been allowed to have the car because of where his friends ended up. But other times, he’d missed out on experiences he wanted to have and at those times, he felt she was being over protective. Upon hearing that, she realized she hadn’t even considered that part of the stalemate might be her own refusal to let go. They eventually arrived at an agreement to start small and keep expanding car privileges as trust and confidence grew between them.
Monica shifted the conversation out of critical debate and into a conversation worth having by reframing the situation and asking a generative question. This simple action shifted the tone and direction of the conversation. It allowed both of them to step back, reflect for a moment, and be more open and honest, and this shifted the outcome of their interaction. [To read more stories like this, order Conversations Worth Having today.]
This is one of the most valuable practices you can develop for building strong relationships, expanding the potential of a group, surfacing possibilities in the face of challenges, and rapidly moving towards desired goals.
Generative questions often arise naturally when we frame a conversation around what we want but don’t currently have. For example, “I don’t have the money to buy a new car” to “I do have the money to buy a new car.” It’s as if the second statement primes our question generator automatically:
- “Where did the money come from?”
- “What did I do to earn, find, or save it?”
- “What miracle might occur to support that?”
- “I wonder how I could ask for a raise, it’s been six years, and they tell me I’m a real asset.” What if I frame it as an adjustment in pay?
- “What if I offered a workshop and had just enough people coming to pay for the car?”
Take the opportunity now to try this little miracle maker with your own problems or “don’t wants”. Flip it, and then let the generative questions flow. Let your curiosity and imagination help you turn the flip into your future reality. Download the Executive Summary for an overview of the practices and principles.
And please let us know what happens for you! Your story will inspire others. Who knows, perhaps we can create a movement that will help us generate a world that is working for all of us.