Tag Archives: questions

Plant The Seed

A Metaphor From The Midwest

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Seeds are amazing – small, seemingly lifeless, yet capable of generating new growth and change. Although planting the seed is necessary for growth, it alone does not ensure growth. Actual growth takes time and depends on the interaction of many factors.

For example, when choosing seeds to plant you need to know the type of crop you want and whether it is suitable for your field. You would also think about the correct depth for planting – too shallow won’t allow the seed to root properly, too deep and it may fail to sprout.  You might further consider the age of the seed, how many need to be planted together to ensure that something will sprout, how much water the seeds might need, whether the weather will be too cold or too hot, and how early or late you are in the season.  Some factors you control, some you don’t.

So, turning to our politics, what kind of a harvest do we want? If we want a more cohesive country, the capability to solve our problems, better accountability for our elected officials, and policies that place “citizens at the center”, then we need to plant different seeds through our civic discourse than the seeds of factionalism, hate, and fear of others. We need to be discussing what brings us together, how to promote “the common good”, and our hopes for the future. We need to discuss these questions directly rather than simply debating or protesting policies designed by partisan interests. And as we talk together, we also need to be promoting the habits of critical thinking and problem-solving

Two ways to plant the seeds of a new approach are asking questions, and sharing your own experiences and values.

Questions: Questions are a useful tool for both tilling the field and planting seeds. When planting, you can ask questions to open discussion, introduce the concept of a common good, and change the partisan focus.  For example you might ask questions like, “What are we hoping to accomplish? Why? What would progress look like? How might we work together to make progress? How would we monitor progress? What else might we do to better understand each other and move forward as one community? What don’t we know? How might we find out?” Note the importance of asking your questions  in an “open” way. This means using phrasing that allows for the potential that ideas other than the ones you favor might work as well.

One approach that often helps to broaden the focus of a discussion on policy and promote consideration of the intersection between issues comes from the school of Appreciative Inquiry.   This is to ask, ” What’s going well and how might we get more of that?” You can also gently introduce additional context or concepts by asking questions aligned with the five sources of conflict.  For example, depending on what direction you wan the inquiry to go, you could also questions like,” What types of values are coming into play here? What information do you think others are relying on and how might we compare that with what we are using? If we were to favor that interest, what other effects might it have on our community? How would that affect us, short term or long term?”

You can promote critical thinking by asking definitional and follow-up questions like the following: “What is it that makes America great? What do you mean by “great”? What role in that was played by pragmatism? Courage? Character? Collaboration? Concern for the next generation? How might those factors affect our thinking here?”  And you can also  introduce new approaches or ideas by asking “What if . . . ?” combined with an invitation for further input, “What if we were to [describe approach], how might that work or not work for us?”

As with any kind of planting you need to be both patient and observant. As you ask questions it is important to provide time for a response, and really listen to that response, asking follow-up questions as needed. We often say in our trainings that there are only three simple rules to communicating effectively with others, rules that are easy to state and hard to apply. They are (i) know your message; (ii) know your audience; (iii) speak so that your audience can listen and understand. When you listen you get to know and understand your audience better. And if your audience is to listen to and engage in conversation with you, at least part of your message needs to be “you matter to me, we are in this together” — or, stated in other words, “united we stand, divided we fall.” This subtext is reflected above in the repeated use of the words “we” and “our”, in the invitation to respond, and in the action of listening.

Sharing: John Dewey once observed, “We can have facts without thinking but we cannot have thinking without facts.” Open-ended questions can of course be used to introduce both facts and context on an issue.  And yet it is worth recognizing, particularly on complex issues, that the known facts may not in and of themselves provide clear answers. There is much we don’t know. Critical and integrative thinking requires a willingness to not only review data and the sources it comes from, but also a willingness to explore more subjective factors like values, interests, and feelings which affect both our evaluation of the risks and direction each of us might be willing to take on a particular issue. A sharing of facts though, when followed by mutual evaluation and further dialogue may well help to illuminate a next step. This sharing and invitation to further evaluation might sound something like this: “I understand it is very upsetting to think about [x], although I have also read [additional facts] and I am curious about what other factors are affecting our differences on this issue. Can we explore that more?”

When planting seeds, sometimes a question with listening is all you can manage. Other times, you will know that you can offer more – planting at a greater depth or with more seeds. When the interest is present you can offer to share an experience, idea, or perspective, saying something like “I have had a different experience, that I would like to share with you, if I can”, or “I understand your thinking on freedom, and there are some other values that I would apply here too that I would like for us to look at together.” Again your phrasing would emphasize the importance of working together, planting the seed of jointly pursuing a common good. As you think about this type of sharing, it is worth reviewing and aligning your phrasing with the elements in Stories of Wisdom.

N.B.: Change can be slow. Few seeds germinate overnight and most plants require weeks or months of growth before they bear fruit. So it is with both ideas and relationships. A successful future harvest requires hard work both before and after the seed is planted.

Choose The Field

A Metaphor From The Midwestharvesting-metaphor-2

When thinking ahead to the harvest, you first need to decide where you will plant the seeds you want to sow. To some extent you will be constrained by geography. As you assess the field you will also need to consider the suitability of the available land and climate for different types of plants. For example, it is easier to grow wheat and corn in the Midwest than rice or cotton. There are other questions to ask as well: has the quality of the soil been depleted by past crops? Has the soil been weakened from the use of fertilizers designed to boost short term growth? In planting, as in politics, overuse of any one technique generally leads to poor growth and diminishing returns at harvest time. Worse still, the soil may be poisoned by overuse of herbicides or pesticides.

As we consider our political field, there are also limits on what we might do. Our representative form of democracy sets some constraints as does the constitutional separation of powers among the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. There are different levels (local, state, or national) on which our political discussion is occurring. Certain issues and problems align with certain branches or levels of government more so than others. Each of these levels, though, informs and affects the others, and so their interactions must be studied and understood.

Regardless of the level at which our field is located, there are many past actions and trends that have depleted and poisoned our political soil. At least three of these could be remediated through dialogue.

The first trend that could be remediated is the categorizing of broad groups of individuals, whether by location, education, race, culture, or economics, into the “them” that threatens the “us”. This stereotyping has been an intentional focus of “wedge politics”, a strategy designed to maximize the returns (in votes and dollars) for both of the dominant political parties. The heated, polarizing, and partisan language used by many political leaders, which is repeated through social and other media, is as poisonous to our democracy as herbicides and pesticides  that leach into soil and water. Such language strangles the growth of new ideas, restricts our ability to consider facts that are different from our preconceptions, and makes it easier for us to deny the humanity, aspirations, interests, and needs of others. The dangers of “Themification” are summarized well in this Ted Talk by Dick Simon. We have moved away from the “united we stand, divided we fall” sentiments that grace many of our public spaces, towards a “what’s in it for me and my tribe” focus.  By doing so we have limited our ability to plan for and take pragmatic steps toward a future that might benefit us all.

The second poisonous trend that could be remediated through dialogue has been the rise of a passive notion of citizenship.  We elect our “gladiators” and sit back to cheer or jeer.  Too few of us engage in the the hard work of informing ourselves, working through the competing choices, or getting directly out into the arena. The media and political parties have been only too happy to lend their support to feeding this “blood sport” of politics by handicapping the players, and focusing much of their effort on raising money in order to “win” the most current “contest”. This approach has eroded both our individual and collective capacity for the critical  analysis that most complex problems require. Instead of identifying and engaging voters on the difficult trade-offs involved in finding solutions, the parties and media are more likely to present “slices” for consumption – dividing complex problems into a series of isolated issues.  These “slices” are often then supported with data that are incomplete or taken out of context, and are argued as if there were a single definitive “right” or “wrong” answer.  This way of presenting what are, in fact, complex issues is highly misleading.  Framing these issues in simplistic either/or terms also ignores the reality that the analysis of most complex issues requires reasoning within multiple systems (e.g. information, values, interest, experience, etc.) and some element of subjective judgment. These fundamental flaws in our collective reasoning are  rarely discussed and often go unnoticed. As we fail to consider the integrative effects and trade-offs across issues we miss opportunities both to identify and to work together to implement solutions for our common good.

The third poisonous trend is the rise of a “bullshit” and celebrity driven entertainment culture that has infected both our news and our ability to reason together.  What do we mean by a “bullshit culture”? In his best-selling book from 2005, “On Bullshit” , Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt attempted to provide a framework to describe communications made with no objective factual constraints or boundaries.  He characterized these as statements “unconstrained by a concern for the truth”, or “bullshit”.

Consider the following quotes:

The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides . . . is that the truth values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to support the truth nor to conceal it. ” (55)

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A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers the statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all of these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man or the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” (55-56)

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[The bullshitter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” ( 61)

The leaching into our political sphere of a tolerance for, and even admiration of, bullshit as a means of discussing serious political issues, has further eroded our ability to think critically about and solve the problems we face as a country.  In a culture that often mistakes celebrity — conferred by the ability to entertain or simply attract publicity– for character or merit, this tolerance for bullshit as political speech is even more damaging.

So, what harvest do we want? Do we want a “government of, by, and for the people”? Do we even believe that is possible? Our current political soil neither nurtures the sense of community that many citizens say they want nor promotes pragmatic problem solving for the common good. Taken together, the above trends have led many to believe there is no way even to discern what that common good might be, and so feelings and affiliations take the place of hard facts and critical analysis in making decisions. If we aren’t willing to change or challenge these trends, we will continue to be disappointed in our political harvest.

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We have a workbook that can help you assess civic health in your community, and other resources for building dialogues.

A Metaphor From The Midwest

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You reap what you sow. That aphorism is well known to us in the Midwest. The reality is a bit more complicated.  Your harvest is affected by the soil, the quality of the seed, the weeds that grow, the sun and rain, and other conditions at the time of harvest.  For example, if you poison your soil, it may help your yield in the first year.  Over time though, yields will decline.  Failure to weed may ruin your crop, or at least diminish your returns.  If you don’t have the right weather conditions or sufficient labor at the time for the harvest, your crop may rot in the field.

In politics, as in farming, you reap what you sow.  The dismay expressed by many citizens over our bitterly partisan political system, and its inability to create broadly accepted and sustainable policies reflects a poor harvest or return on our collective efforts.  The next few posts will examine conditions and practices that have led to our current state, and how a commitment by citizens to dialogue  and more collaborative practices might lead to new growth and a more satisfying harvest.

Teaching The Navigation of Difficult Dialogues: Sequence – 2

Our second class discussion on developing a policy on guns in our hypothetical school district was a “world cafe” style facilitated meeting.  The facilitators laid the groundwork for productive dialogue from their initial invitation:

Please join your local School Board and fellow community members for a facilitated group discussion of the conceal and carry referendum that is currently before the Board. “We would like to hear the thoughts and comments of all interested community members, both those who are parents and those without children.”

Note how even this short paragraph both emphasizes that participants are coming together as a “community”, and sets an expectation for open, inclusive dialogue. Following this paragraph were four bullets, “What”, “When”, “Where” and “Bring”. This last bullet simply read “Bring: Your thoughtful comments and a willingness to hear others’ points of view!”

As participants came into the meeting they were greeted, handed an agenda, and invited to sit at one of two tables. One of the facilitators then welcomed everyone, gave a brief overview of the process and goal for the evening (to learn more and share thoughts), and invited questions.  This brief intro, which took less than 10 minutes also covered the “next step” in the overall process – – the more deliberative discussion scheduled for the following week.  This (i) let the world cafe participants know that their input would be meaningful as it would be used to shape the options for discussion at this subsequent meeting, (ii) confirmed the current session’s focus on joint learning and thinking, and (iii) provided the facilitators with a reference point that they could use to redirect participants away from premature deliberation as they explored the questions for that evening.  More than once, when participants began advocating for a particular action, the facilitators simply said “today we’re here to listen,”  and refocused on the broader topic.

The overall agenda was timed and covered three topics with breaks and opportunities for additional interaction in between.  The three topics, chosen after analysis of the previous week’s questions were “cost”, “safety” and “ideal policy”.  These were translated on the agenda into the following questions:

  • What economic cost concerns do you have about creating a new conceal-and-carry policy?  What do you think the costs will be? etc.
  • What does safety mean to you?  What about safety in a school setting? What does safety mean to the community? etc.
  • What would an ideal conceal-and-carry policy look like to you?

During the first segment of dialogue (5:10 – 5:35 pm), one small group discussed costs, and the other safety.  The groups then switched tables and topics during the second segment (5:40 to 6:05 pm).   (Facilitators stayed at their table.)  At the end of each segment the participants starred the 2 -3 comments/concerns that they thought most important. In between segments participants had a short break as they changed tables. They were also invited to write down additional comments or questions during the break. During the third segment (6:10 to 6:35 pm), both groups were invited to write down their “ideal policy” on note-cards or post-its before the discussion started, and then to share that with the group.  As the discussion concluded each was again asked to star the 2 – 3 comments/concerns that they thought most important.  After another short break, which also allowed the facilitators to coordinate, key comments (those most starred) were summarized, everyone was thanked for their hard work, and all were invited to come back and discuss options at the next scheduled session.

During the discussions the participants identified a wide range of costs which included administrative costs, training costs, tax impacts, economic development and lost opportunity costs, as well as the “cost of life”.  They also expressed a wide range of views on  safety and generated many questions relating to both safety and costs.  Several of those questions related to what conditions would be put in place with respect to screening, training, licensing, and re-certification if anyone other than law enforcement officials were allowed to carry guns in schools.  Overall, as the facilitator summarized, all were concerned about safety, and the group as a whole wanted a better understanding of both potential funding sources and the costs associated with planning, implementing, and administering any change, before a new policy was adopted.   As will be discussed further in the next post, these questions, and the ways in which they inter-related, laid the foundation for productive deliberations in the following week.