THE POWER OF INQUIRY
I remember what my friend said in circle…
In circle, recently, some of my friends were thinking about how to have a conversation with others who hold strong political opinions, which differ from their own. I remember what I heard my friend, Linda, say once, when we sat in circle. She responded skillfully in a frozen moment, when the group had been taken by surprise by a strong political statement that differed from the majority point of view of most of the women present. The moment felt very charged, given the strong political division in this country in this decade. At times, I have wanted to avoid conversations, which surfaced these strong divisions, feeling that to pursue these conversations might put friendship on dangerous ground.
However, Linda moved into this more risky arena very skillfully, when this woman said that she had voted for Bush. Some people looked around, not knowing how to keep the developing conversation going. My well-practiced friend found the skillful question, made several useful inquiries, which allowed this person to open up further so that we could all truly understand her thinking. “What leads you to vote for Bush?” The conversation developed into a discussion of basic democratic and republican ideologies. Another question: “How do you see these ideologies playing out today?” It was a question that all of us could reflect on. Everyone present learned more about each others viewpoint, and we raised further questions that led to considerations further afield and circled back to core philosophical reflection. We each respectfully listened into the thinking… into the heart, of others with opposing viewpoints. The conversation became noteworthy and we were collectively thankful for the depth we experienced. Of course, one can find guidelines on “how to ask questions” in difficult situations, which help to open, rather than to close a conversation. But, the primary guideline, it seems, is Caring. It was the tone and spirit of the inquiry, which created openness, more than the words. I was touched by Linda’s gentleness and true curiosity and I found myself reflecting: “What is my purpose in asking a question?” Is it to learn? How can I keep love alive in ordinary difficult conversations? Linda role modeled peace and possibility. Can I ask questions in a way that truly inquires into another person’s values and best intentions, or are my questions simply a disguised rebuke or opinion. A question which begins with “don’t you think….(?) is really a disguised statement of belief. Can I courageously state my own opinion as an opinion, and THEN ask a true question, a question born in caring and loving? Can I keep my heart open to BEING WITH this other person or am I seeking to surround myself with like minds because it is so much easier? Lessons learned
I remember the first time that I heard of the Power of Inquiry, when being introduced to the practice of Collective Dialogue in Circle, as presented by such practitioners as Meg Wheatley, Glenna Gerard, and Sarita Chawla. The question was posed: What if, regarding the topics of our heart, we could stay “In The Question” throughout our time of consideration. What if, instead of coming to conclusions, our speaking would lead us to the next and the next question?… continue to raise questions? What if we let go of our need to be right, our need to form a consensus, and opened to our NOT KNOWING? Of course, inquiry without true listening is not so useful. To stay in a state of inquiry AND listening allows us to consider ideas, topics, or dilemmas within a field of openness. It is important to have a safe and sacred setting such as the Circle where people agree to go slowly, speak one at a time and LISTEN. If we are inquiring into something like “The right to life” or “war”, can we suspend our judgement long enough to listen to the other and formulate a loving inquiry, or do we separate ourselves from the person with whom we are experiencing difference, maybe doubt? Various guidelines have been developed which assist us in phrasing inquiries in a useful way. (For instance, questions which begin with “what” or “how” are often more useful than questions which begin with “why”).
There are also some mindsets, which I find useful as reminders…
- To become an “expert learner” in the circle of conversation.
- To listen, as if the other person were Wise
- To “suspend” my own thinking and beliefs as I actively receive the needs, experiences and beliefs of each other person in the circle.
What prevents me from doing this? A little self-reflection reveals that in circle…
- I sometimes avoid others when I think “they just don’t get it”.
- I feel urgent to convince another, when I think they are wrong.
- I want to interrupt when I fear that my idea or experience will not be heard before time runs out, or before a consensus is developed around an opposing idea.
Together, in sacred circle, we have a practice field for inquiry, listening, and doing the difficult work of holding opposing or multiple points of view. In circle, I am reminded to develop my “muscles” of inquiry and listening.