Tag Archives: questions

How Do We Want It To Be?

There is an simple solution to every human problem – easy, plausible, and wrong.” H.L. Mencken

It’s easy in our debate-oriented culture to get stuck in an exchange of positions and arguments over who is right or what is wrong.  So how do you move through that?

Here is one question that often works to change the pattern when a conversation starts falling into an unproductive exchange of competing views:

“How would you like it to be?”

This can also be asked in the form of an invitation: “I think we are getting lost in the details, can we talk for a moment of how we would like it to be?”

This question (or invitation) opens a path for dialogue, steering away from debates on who is to blame, or what action should be taken, or whose information is better.  Instead this question/invitation shifts the focus to desired outcomes in a shared future. It invites creativity, invokes values, and offers hope – all in just 7 words.

Then, as you listen to and reflect on the responses to this question, you can further expand the dialogue by asking questions that gently explore definitions of terms used by the speaker (e.g., can you tell me more about your definition of democracy? what do you mean by “a great nation”, who is “we” or “they”?).  You can also ask questions that explore the “why” of the preferred outcomes. And as to any proposed outcome you might also ask “how might we get there”?

Both the opening question and the exploratory questions that follow provide more opportunities than do our standard forms of conversation to make a shared connection  whether to values, to hoped for outcomes, or to the hurts that need healing.

In recent conversations I have had, people across the partisan continuum have expressed concern for their families and a desire to see “more human values” or “respect for human dignity” in our policies. Many also want to “live their lives in peace”.  They connect with each other as they share stories and imagine a better future for us all. That connection is what is needed to help us work through the difficult issues together.

In our next post we will look further at the issue of pursuing both peace and prosperity, what the data tells us, and how that data can be used in building an ongoing dialogue.

Speaking Up.

Its been a difficult few weeks in American politics. Are you concerned that racism, hate, mendacity, and hyper-partisanship are dominating our national discourse?

As citizens we have more power to shape the national discourse than we might think. Here’s what you can do:

Recognize the patterns of hate and respond with Stories of Wisdom. Ask your elected representatives to avoid the former and encourage and support them when they too have the courage to speak of interdependence or to focus on the common good.

Call out distortion and deflection, and avoid falling into these habits yourself.

Rather than simply reacting to or throwing out a trigger word, ask for definitions, supply yours, and explore the differences.

Be willing to truly listen to your fellow citizens. Note that “[b]y listening attentively, we can take in the experiences of others without necessarily agreeing with what they are advocating.” (David Matthews, The Ecology of Democracy, (2018). Listening does help us to better understand each other.

Make the effort to think things through. Consume media that does more than excite and inflame.  Look for sites and sources that confirm facts or provide context on the complex issues of the day.  As Thomas Jefferson said “Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error.”

Look for what is working and get involved in organizations that are trying to unite rather than divide our country.  It’s not about Us v. Them. It’s about all of us, and what we might be as a country.

So reach out, talk, and commit to the good of your neighbors. We can do better.

Afro and White, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, our fates are bound together. We can run from each other but we cannot escape each other. We will only attain freedom if we learn to appreciate what is different and muster the courage to discover what is fundamentally the same. America’s diversity offers so much richness and opportunity. Take a chance, won’t you? Knock down the fences that divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison. Reach out, freedom lies just on the other side.

We should have liberty for all.   

– Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, July 4, 1992.

Plant The Seed

A Metaphor From The Midwest


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)


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)


[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.


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


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.