“Ask the right questions. The fastest way to change the answers you receive – from yourself and others – is to change the questions you ask.”
– Lee J Colan
My apologies to fellow members and other readers for the delay in bringing out the part-2 of this article; I would also like to share that this article was originally envisaged to pool in experiences, views & thoughts of others but in absence of any contributions the experiences shared herein may not represent as wide a spectrum as originally envisaged.
Let us recall that in part-1 we shared examples of situations generating the negative emotions (e.g. despair, frustration, anger, sadness, disgust, concern, anxiety, ) drain our energy and conversely, the situations generating positive emotions (characterized by Joy, Interest, Contentment, Love, Pride, Awe, Hope, Amusement, Compassion, Gratitude, Sexual desire etc.) create a spirit uplifting spiral.
With the help of four examples we realized that this holds good for the situations at intra-personal, inter-personal, group and systemic level. Further, we saw that in each of the situations the outcome of the positive spiral got triggered by the questions raised by herself/ himself.
An examination of the consequences and impact in different situations enumerated earlier (part-1) would reveal that for a given situation the consequences were shaped by the type of inquiry one carried out. In this part-2 of the article we will examine the anatomy of questions which provide us the positive spiral in life.
Why do I refer to these questions as the “Generative Questions”?
gen·er·a·tive (jěn’ər-ə-tĭv, -ə-rā’-) adj. Having the ability to originate, produce/ procreate
As the dictionary meaning connotes, these questions have the ability to lift us up; lift our spirit, lift our hope, lift our chances of accomplishment, lift our inner self through positive residual emotions.
More often than not, these questions (or the nature inquiry) are characterised by the following:
A Generative Question
Is Open-ended rather than a leading or Closed one
Addresses the Collective (or others) rather than Individual (or Self)
Separates out the System vis-à-vis an Individual
Focuses on Future (or the present moment) rather than the Past
Inquires into a Paradigm (or thought process) rather than an Activity
Has Hope as opposed to Cynicism
Last but not the least, a Generative Question leaves the
Residue of Positive Emotions and not the Negative ones
Let us understand these characteristics (perhaps not a comprehensive list) in a greater detail
An Open-ended question throws up the possibility to honour multiple realities as opposed to a closed ended question; it provides a sense of freedom, it honours the recipient and it conveys openness.
At intra-personal level an open-ended question generates options to look beyond constraints, to break free from prejudices and biases leading to personal growth. E.g.
What can I do to generate new business during these times of recession?
Do I double up the efforts on ‘business development’ to tide-over during these times of recession?
At inter-personal level such an inquiry makes it easy to develop rapport and leads to higher trust. E.g. a marriage counsellor asking a client
Tell me about your relationship with your wife?
Do you have a good relationship with your wife?
At group level when one raises such a question, it involves & engages all the members and perhaps leads to the best answer. E.g. a class prefect asking fellow students
How should we decorate the class for the annual day, any suggestions?
Should we put crafts material in different corners or paste colour paintings?
When one’s inquiry is focused at systemic level, it facilitates to preserve the best of what exists and build on it to create a more promising future. E.g. the executive body of an NGO deliberating
What can be done to generate more funds for our next year plans?
Should we arrange a charity musical concert or bring out a souvenir?
One needs to bear in mind that an open question has to be genuinely ‘open’; mere words appearing ‘open’ with an ulterior motive do not make it an ‘open question’. The recipient(s) is bound to recognize the true motive. With a little practice and consciousness one can make this a habit.
The other characteristics mentioned above also apply at all the four levels. Let’s examine consequences associated with the inquiry choices we make and some examples
Addressing the collective
An inquiry which is focused on the collective generates oneness in contrast with the ‘self’ or ‘narrow’ centred inquiry
System vs Individual
Similar to the above is an inquiry which is focused on the ‘systems’ aspect as opposed to individual(s)
The recently concluded American presidential election provides us plenty of examples. For instance
“…with major financial institutions on the verge of collapse and global markets on the brink, we took unprecedented action and passed a $700 billion rescue plan… I have no doubt this was the right thing to do to address the immediate crisis and put our economy on firmer footing…” [on financial crisis – pl see the choice of we from the democrat presidential nominee; also the focus on system]
“…Two years ago, I called for reform of this corruption at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Congress did nothing. The Administration did nothing. Senator Obama did nothing, and actually profited from this system of abuse and scandal… somehow its former CEO had managed to gain my opponent’s trust to the point that Senator Obama actually put him in charge of his vice presidential search” [on financial crisis – pl see the choice of I from the ruling republican presidential nominee; also the focus on individual]
Activity vs Paradigm
Another characteristic of generative questions is that these questions attempt to examine deeper aspects rather than those on the surface. Just as in Mahabharat Krishna choses to keep a focus on future and super-ordinate to influence Arjuna:
“I no longer desire victory, Krishna, or kingship, or the delights that come from it. What good will kingship do to me, Krishna, or pleasures, or life? They for whom I desired kingship, pleasures, and delights stand here in battle-array, offering up their lives and substance—teachers, fathers, sons, grandfathers, uncles, fathers-in-law, grandsons, brothers-in-law, and also kinsmen…”
“…Considering your own code of honor as a warrior, you should not hesitate. For a warrior there is no greater good than a lawful war. Happy are the warriors, Arunja, who find such a war coming to them unsought, like an open door to Paradise. But if you will not wage this lawful battle, then you will fail your personal law and code of honor, and will sin…”
We all know the generative consequence of this captivating dialogue from the Bhagwat Gita;
Future vs Past
One of the most impactful characteristics which makes an inquiry (or a question) generative is when the focus of inquiry is on the future as opposed to the past. The future focused inquiry often looks for possibilities, searches for solutions as opposed to the probability of searching for the problems from the past.
Hope vs Cynicism
The hope is forward looking and cynicism often looks at past. Therefore, this becomes the most important characteristic we need to nurture to be the inquirers with generative mindset.
‘Hope & Future’ vs ‘Past & Cynicism’ is the most lethal mindset to have one way or the other.
Let’s look at how American president elect Barack Obama exemplified this vis-à-vis Hillary Clinton before he was declared the democrat nominee; on Thursday the 31st Jan’08 the very first debate between Obama & Hillary (after John Edwards had retreated and only two candidates remained in the race) these were the first set of words spoken by the two in the CNN debate
“.. and I also want to note that I was friends with Hillary Clinton before we started this campaign; I will be friends with Hillary Clinton after this campaign is over… I believe we’re at a defining moment…Our nation is at war; our planet is in peril. Families all across the country are struggling…And at this moment, the question is: How do we take the country in a new direction? How do we get past the divisions that have prevented us from solving these problems year after year after year? … I think what is at stake right now is whether we are looking backwards or we are looking forwards. I think it is the past versus the future… We want change from George Bush. But we also have to have change that brings the country together, pushes back against the special interests in Washington, and levels with the American people about the difficult changes that we make. If we do that, I am confident that we can solve any problem and we can fulfill the destiny that America wants to see, not just next year, but in many years to come…”
“Well, on January 20, 2009, the next president of the United States will be sworn in on the steps of the Capitol… And then, when the celebrations are over, the next president will walk into the Oval Office, and waiting there will be a stack of problems, problems inherited from a failed administration: a war to end in Iraq and a war to resolve in Afghanistan; an economy that is not working for the vast majority of Americans, but well for the wealthy and the well-connected; tens of millions of people either without health insurance at all or with insurance that doesn’t amount to much, because it won’t pay what your doctor or your hospital need…. an energy crisis that we fail to act on at our peril; global warming, which the United States must lead in trying to contend with and reverse; and then all of the problems that we know about and the ones we can’t yet predict…”
It is a known history now which voice turned out to be the generative one for the Democratic Party. However, if one were to keep aside the results and read the above paragraphs again one can easily experience the greater residue of Positive Emotions with the former argument than with the later one.
When one examines the Obama vs McCain speeches one can see the difference. Obama’s questions to himself, to Hillary Clinton, to American masses were mostly generative as opposed to those of McCain. Also a good perspective can be found at http://www.newsweek.com/id/167582.
The characteristics of Obama’s speeches indeed generate positive emotions in the listeners/ readers through Openness, Collective Ownership, Systems focus (rather than targeting an individual), Future focus, Big-picture view and Hope.
The several examples from the history, my personal experience and reflection (particularly) over past few months have strengthened and reinforced author’s own belief about the ‘generative questions’ and their anatomy; the results of American Presidential election’08 and my interaction with several friends from the other side of globe, particularly during the recent weeks have further supported my belief. To me, the emotional & intellectual connect which, Obama has been able to establish with the masses in the USA and beyond is testimony to the anatomy of ‘Generative Questions’. Amen!
This article was published in ISABS journal “Here & Now” December 2008 issue.
- Appreciative Inquiry: A Transformative Paradigm – an article by Jane Magruder Watkins and David Cooperrider • OD Practitioner, 32(1), 6-12.
- The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology – The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions – by Barbara L. Fredrickson, (Dept of Psychology, University of Michigan) • March 2001 • American Psychologist
- Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing – by Barbara L. Fredrickson, (Dept of Psychology, University of Michigan) • Oct 2005 • American Psychologist
- Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination (Paperback) – by Jane Magruder Watkins and Bernard J. Mohr • Jossey-Bass/ Pfeiffer
- Appreciative Coaching: A Positive Process for Change – by Sara L Orem, Jacqueline Binkert and Ann L Clancy
- http://obamaspeeches.com/, http://www.johnmccain.com/informing/News/Speeches/ , http://www.johnmccain.com/informing/News/Speeches/, http://www.newsweek.com/id/167582, http://www.humanistictexts.org/bhagavad.htm