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Questions for a New Narrative

by Peter Block

The work of the modern age is about the restoration of humanity in our selves and our communities. This first occurs through shifting the nature of our language and how we speak and listen to each other. This is the medium through which a more positive future is created or denied. A shorthand way of expressing this is that if you want to change a culture, or an institution, or a life, simply change the conversation about that culture, institution, or life.

Changing the conversation means that we seek a new narrative, a different story to tell about ourselves and the world around us. Most healing and therapy is the attempt to re-remember the past in a more forgiving way. The healing or restoration begins the moment we accept that the existing narrative or story is really just fiction, we constructed it; it is not the fact we consider it to be.

For example, consider the dominant narrative about our urban centers that we hear daily from the media and from each other. In the United States, for most of our cities, the dominant narrative or story is that there is something wrong with our schools, our health care, and our government. The story is that our cities are dangerous, our leaders are questionable, our citizens are only good for consumption, our families are dysfunctional, and our elected officials are more interested in staying in office than serving the long run interests of the community.

None of this is true. It carries some truth in it, but in reality, it is just a narrative. We could just as easily talk about the commitment of our educators, the good health that individuals can choose for themselves, and the dedication of public servants. We could talk about how citizens keep their neighborhoods safe, how families sustain us against all odds, and how leaders do the best they can and are not so important anyway.

If we want to create an alternative future, which is the point of this project in humanity, the narrative we choose to speak and listen to is decisive. This is a shift from the conventional wisdom that the future is created by better problem solving, better leaders, more training, better policies, more funding, and more expertise. All these just give us is more of what we have now. We can do all of these and with no shift in the narrative, we rarely create a future distinct from the past. This is why the heart remains uneducated. It is just the same old story.

What is elusive is that transformation occurs through a new narrative that is not so much about the specific future for the community, but the narrative is, in itself, the future. A way to think of this is to consider the meaning of a yoga practice. Anyone beginning yoga struggles with the postures and cannot help but feel inadequate, have doubts about their body, and think that the purpose of the practice is the core strength and flexibility it produces, or not.

All this is true, but the larger insight, is to realize that “how you do the mat, is how you do your life.” That the practice of yoga itself is your life. Creating good postures, breathing, and flexibility are simply fringe benefits. It is your way of doing the practice itself that is the breakthrough, not some future moment in which a better state of being is accomplished. This way there is nothing to wait for, no future or objective measure of accomplishment to be attained.

The same with a new narrative or story. Staying with the example of the narrative of our communities, a story about them which reflects and embodies a restorative context––one of possibility, generosity, gifts, relatedness with others––is the transformation as much as any place that  conversations might lead you. This is distinct from the old story which focuses on deficiencies and needs and believes that problem solving is the key to the future.

What gets misunderstood about this kind of new narrative is that it is just about positive thinking and telling the good news. Not so. There is space in this new narrative to talk about suffering and loss, but it can occur in a different context. A new narrative can be about the paradoxical nature of life. About possibilities that go unimagined, about gifts held in exile, about generosity that goes unnoticed, about relatedness that is not valued.

If, just for a moment, we can accept that (1) the narrative is decisive (2) the narrative is fiction and can be recreated at will, then we can be specific about the means of creating the new story in a powerful way.    

The new story gets created in two ways: First we realize that a restorative narrative can best be produced through deciding to value questions more than answers, by choosing to put as much thought into questions as we have traditionally given to answers.

Second, we have to agree to an injunction against being helpful. As soon as we become helpful, we begin to control each other, get judgmental, and rush too quickly to action.

Valuing Questions More Than Answers

There is an old saying that questions bring us together and answers keep us apart. Questions are the essential tools of transformation. Questions are the means by which we are all confronted with our freedom, which is the essence of our humanity. In this sense, if you want to change the future, find powerful questions. If this seems like it is over simplifying the process, well of course it is.

Questions create the space for something new to emerge, while answers, especially those that respond to our need for quick results, shut down the discussion, and the future shuts down with them. Most leaders are well schooled in providing answers and remain rather indifferent and naïve as far as the use of questions goes. How many speeches and presentations have we seen flooded with answers, blueprints, analyses, and proposals? How many have you seen presenting questions?

What makes us impatient with questions and hungry for answers is that we confuse exploring a question with talk that has no meaning––argument, analysis, explanation, and defense––talk that leaves us despairing about citizens coming together to create something. Questions that trigger argument, analysis, explanation, and defense have little power. They may be interesting, but that is different from being powerful.

Powerful questions are those that, in the answering, evoke a choice for accountability and commitment. They are questions that take us to requests, offers, declarations, forgiveness, confession, gratitude, and welcome, all of which are memorable and have a transformative power.

Questions for the Old Narrative

The existing dominant narrative, which rests on the belief that something is wrong with us, is organized around a set of traditional questions that have little power to create an alternative future. It is understandable that we ask them, but they carry no power and, in the asking, each of these questions is an obstacle to addressing what has given rise to the question in the first place. Here are some of the questions which take us nowhere new:  

  • What is wrong with this place?
  • What are the needs and deficiencies?
  • How do we get people to change?
  • How do we get others to be more responsible?
  • How do we get people on-board and to do the right thing?
  • How do we hold those people accountable? Who is at fault?
  • How do we get others to buy-in to our vision?
  • How much will it cost and where do we get the money?
  • What new policy or legislation will move our interests forward?
  • Where is it working? Who has solved this elsewhere and how do we import that knowledge?
  • How do we find and develop better leaders?
  • Why aren’t those people in the room?
  • How do we take it to scale? Where is the leverage?

If we answer these questions directly, from the context within which they are asked, we are supporting the mindset that an alternative future can be negotiated, problem solved, engineered, and controlled into existence. They call us to try harder at what we have been doing.

The hidden agenda in these questions is to maintain dominance and to be right. They urge us to raise standards, measure more closely, and return to basics, purportedly to create accountability. They are not really about returning to basics, they are about returning to what got us here.

All these questions also preserve innocence for the one asking. They imply that the one asking knows, and other people are a problem to be solved. These are each an expression of reliance on the use of force to make a difference in the world. They occur when we lose faith in our own power and the power of our community.

These questions are also a response to the wish to create a predictable future. We want desperately to take uncertainty out of the future. But when we take uncertainty out, it is no longer the future. It is the present projected forward. Nothing new can come from the desire for a predictable tomorrow. The only way to make tomorrow predictable is to make it just like today. In fact, what distinguishes the future is its unpredictability and mystery.

Questions with Great Power

Questions that have the power to produce a new narrative are ones that engage people in an intimate way, confront them with their freedom, and invite them to co-create a future possibility. They are in this way restorative.

A new narrative entails the use of questions that by the act of answering them, no matter how they are answered, we become co-creators of the world. They are the questions from which there is no escape, even if the response is to refuse to answer. To state it more dramatically: powerful questions are the ones that, no matter how you answer, you are guilty.

Here are some questions that meet these requirements and have the capacity to open the space for a different future:

  • What is the commitment you hold that brought you into this room?
  • What is the price you or others pay for being here today?
  • How valuable do you plan for this moment to be?
  • What doubts do you have, especially ones others may not be aware of?
  • What is the crossroad you face, at this stage of the game?
  • What is the story you keep telling about the problems of this community?
  • What is the cost and payoff of the current story you are living into?
  • What are the gifts you hold that have not been brought fully into the world?
  • What gift have you received in this or a recent moment from those around you?
  • What is your contribution to producing  the very thing you complain about?
  • What is it about you or your group, or neighborhood that no one knows?
  • What is the possibility that you are a stand for?

These questions move something forward. They are questions that demand in the dialogue choice, ownership, and gifts. By answering these kinds of questions, we become more accountable, more committed, more vulnerable, and when we voice our answers to one another, we grow more intimate and connected.

They are, in themselves, an example of the new narrative.

Moratorium on Advice

Having good questions is a start, but the platform on which they are explored also matters. The key to the platform is to tell people not to be helpful and not to decide anything. Trying to be helpful and giving advice are really ways to control others. When I give advice, it means I have something in mind for you and in this way I stand as the one who knows.

Advice stops conversation. To open space for a new narrative, we want to substitute curiosity for advice. Plus we need to postpone a call to action. Do not ask what they are going to do about it. Do not tell people how you handled the same concern in the past. Do not ask questions that have advice hidden in them, such as “have you ever thought of talking to the person directly?”

Often citizens will ask for advice. The request for advice is how we surrender our sovereignty. If we give in to this request, we, in this small instance, affirm their servitude, their belief that they do not have the capacity to create the world from their own resources, and more importantly, we support their escape from their own freedom.

The option to giving advice is ask one another instead, “Why does that mean so much to you?” When they answer, ask the same question again, “And why does that mean so much to you?” This is how advice is replaced with curiosity. The future hinges on this issue. Advice, recommendations, and obvious actions are exactly what increase the likelihood that tomorrow will be just like yesterday.

An Example: Putting Health Care in the Hands of Citizens

Phil Cass is a foundation executive in Columbus, Ohio who is part of group bringing a profound use of questions to the health care debate. He has created a series of community conversations involving a cross section of several hundred citizens in re-imagining and ultimately reforming health care. They are learning the importance of the question and how the conversation is framed. The results of those gatherings are profound: the conversation shifted from how to reform the existing health care system to how to create a community that nurtures the health and well being of each of its citizens. The cynic would say it is just semantics; the activist who believes the future is waiting to be created would know that in shifting the question, a transformation in that community has begun.

This then is the operational path for a shift in communal consciousness. Swim in questions that confront our freedom and suspend judgment, advice, and knowing what is best for another.