Strategic Questioning – Asking Questions That Make A Difference

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black and white photo of Fran Peavey

Fran Peavey Image Credit: The Jobs Letter

Practitioners working in all kinds of social change will gain value from exploring the Strategic Questioning Manual, developed by the late activist and changemaker Fran Peavey, and published online by The Change Agency.

This overview of Strategic Questioning has been compiled from the Manual, and from notes taken by Crux during a workshop Peavey ran in Adelaide in 2001.

Strategic Questioning offers essential tools for any change agent. Peavey defined it as follows:

Strategic Questioning is a way of talking with people with whom you have differences without abandoning your own beliefs and yet looking for common ground which may enable both parties to co-create a new path from the present situation. In every heart there is ambiguity; in every ideology there are parts that don’t fit.

Strategic Questioning is the skill of asking the questions that will make a difference.

From First Kind to Second Kind Communication

Strategic Questioning offers a way to move from ‘communication of the first kind’ to ‘communication of the second kind’.

Communication of the first kind is characterised by the static/passive voice, how reality is now, and transmits information which is already known.

Many people brought up in a traditional education system received schooling based on asking and responding to questions to which the answers were already known: ‘What is the capital of Spain? What is eight plus six?’

The lesson learnt was that questions have finite and ‘correct’ answers, and there is usually one answer for each question. Wrong answers were punished with bad marks. Learning was about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, and questions were typically limited to those for which the ‘authority’ already knew the answer, not ones which may have exposed the authority’s ignorance.

Of this binary approach to learning, Peavey noted that although:

…this may be a convenient way of running schools and testing people’s capacity for memory in examinations, it has not been a very empowering learning process, or a good preparation for the questions that will be coming up in life…all this is unfortunate to our times, because in the early 2000s – in our personal, professional and public lives – we are surrounded with questions that have no simple answers.

Communication of the second kind is characterised by its dynamic/creative voice, how things could be, calls forth the new. Strategic Questioning is a form of this ‘communication of the second kind’.

A Strategic Question:

  • creates motion – enables the structure of the conversation to move from the static to the dynamic
  • creates options – looks for alternatives (while avoiding questions which suggest a specific alternative eg. ‘have you considered…?’), instead asking what else is possible
  • avoids ‘why’? questions – such questions ask people to defend or justify their position, or talk about the present in terms of the past
  • avoids ‘yes/no’ answers – ask questions which defuse dualistic, binary thinking (which sees things in terms of black/white, either/or, right/wrong) by getting people to do some ‘thinking work’, and moving them from a passive into a creative state
  • is empowering – allowing someone to take what is already in their head and develop it further, rather than putting ideas into their head
  • asks the ‘unaskable’ – there is tremendous power in asking ‘taboo’ questions, as such questions are usually unaskable because they challenge the values and assumptions on which something is based
  • is a simple, not compound question – addresses one thing at a time, and minimises the need for analysis

Strategic Questioning is really part of a broader ‘family’ of questions, the first series of which are not strategic questions, though they are necessary for strategic questioning to work because they set the context:

Context Questions

  • Focus Questions: gather information that is already known, identifying the situation and they key facts necessary to understand the situation. Example: ‘What are you most concerned about in your community?’
  • Observation Questions: concerned with what someone has seen and the information someone has heard regarding the situation. Examples include: ‘What do you see?’, ‘Which sources do you trust and why?’, ‘What do you know for certain and what are you not sure about?’
  • Feeling Questions: concerned with body sensations, emotions, health. Examples include: ‘How do you feel about the situation?’, ‘How has the situation affected your own physical or emotional health?’

Strategic Questions

Once context-setting questions have been asked, then a group can be moved into Strategic Questions, which may include:

  • Visioning Questions: concerned with identifying ideals, dreams and values. Examples include: ‘How would you like it to be?’, ‘What about this situation do you care so much about?’
  • Change Questions: move from the static to the dynamic, how to get from the present to a more ideal situation. Examples include: ‘Who can make a difference?’, ‘How did those changes come about?’, ‘What will it take to bring the current situation towards the ideal?’
  • Considering Alternatives: questions which enable someone to imagine or identify (preferably more than two) alternatives. Examples include: ‘What other ways could you meet your goal?’, ‘What are the consequences of each alternative you see?’
  • Personal Inventory & Support Questions: identifying someone’s interests, potential contributions and the support required for them to act. Examples include: ‘What would it take for you to participate in the change?’, ‘What support would you need to work for this change?’
  • Personal Action Questions: designed to get to the specifics of what to do, when to do it, and how. Examples include: ‘Who do you need to talk to?’, ‘How can you get others to work on this?’
stylised image of black and white head with maze through brain, question mark in brain and exclamation point at mouth

Using Strategic Questioning in Organisational & Social Change

In her assessment of how organisations have typically approached change, Peavey identified key flaws in the modus operandi:

Many organisational leaders and social change workers have been taught the process of determining in their own mind or in their group a policy or ‘idea’ which would be a positive change. They set about marketing this idea to the public through speeches, leaflets and meetings.

As many working in social change are all too aware, this approach is often risky, as there is no broad-based ‘buy-in’ or ownership of the policy or idea. People are rarely convinced to adopt a new position through rational argument, especially where it conflicts with deeply held (and sometimes unconscious) values.

Our ability to overcome to move beyond this deadlock depends in large part on our ability to have effective conversations, especially with those who hold different views to ourselves:

In many societies people are taught to have defensive and combative conversation styles, expressing opinions rather than opening up to the growing edge of what one is coming to know. The consequence of defensive conversations is that while one is listening to the ideas and opinions of others, one’s inner eye is focused on what one will say to rebut the position of the other.

The best way to empower people is to help them find their own way to the ideas and strategies that reside inside of themselves.

When to Use Strategic Questioning

Times of uncertainty, conflict and confusion – and opportunity-generating crises – call for a different approach to communication.

Peavey identified a range of opportune times to use Strategic Questioning, including when:

  • your organisation is undergoing major change
  • when you need to understand the life experience, rationale or degree of commitment of the resistance to your campaign
  • you have been working on something for a long time and have run out of ideas
  • you are feeling isolated or are cynical that anybody cares about the things you care about
  • your group is fragmented and conflicted – strategic questioning will help clarify positions and look for new alternatives
  • a group only sees one or two alternatives and needs to do some creative thinking together

All of these situations are junctures where there complex issues and no simple or ‘known’ answers that ‘first kind’ communication will yield. ‘Second kind’ communication is needed for the ways forward to be co-created and revealed.

The Ethics of Strategic Questioning

Peavey placed a strong emphasis on the ethics of using Strategic Questioning, and the need to keep our own identities and opinions – our egos – out of the process.

Often we confuse our opinions with our essence as a living being. Our belief structure and our values are very close to the core of who we think ourselves to be…in the old model of power we’ve been taught to think that we’re superior, and that we have the point of view which everyone else needs.

Strategic Questioning does not require that the practitioner forget about his or her own opinions, which would be disrespectful to oneself. It only means that you carry your opinions in a way that does not interfere with the dialogue, the respect and the exploration of alternatives that you are trying to achieve.

Try to imagine putting your opinions in your pocket before doing Strategic Questioning – they’re still there, you can touch them, but they’re not interfering with the task at hand. Strategic Questioning is about an empathic approach to listening, not manipulation or control of the conversation – keep as little of your own personality from interfering as possible. Design your questions to let the answers emerge from the person or people affected, rather than offering your own suggestions.

Some approaches to help with this are:

  • use curiousity in lieu of judgment
  • check that your questions do not include assumptions
  • allow others’ feelings to be expressed without attempting to ‘fix’ them

Peavey also points out that using Strategic Questioning may change the questioner, as well as the questionee, as new  perspectives are revealed:

When we open ourselves to another point of view, our own ideas will have to shift to take into account new information. If you want to control the outcome, you are really fundraising and using questioning as a ploy to get a person’s trust – if you take satisfaction in conversion, please do not use Strategic Questioning.

More detail on the principles, approaches and techniques of Strategic Questioning can be found in Fran Peavey’s Strategic Questioning Manual.

Have you found that changing how you ask questions changes the dynamic of your conversations?

It can be difficult to keep our own opinions out of the process of listening to others – what techniques have you used? 

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  1. This is great; thanks! I link-jumped my way here through your recent conversation with Mix Irving around his article on Black Hats.

    This reminds me a bit of the action research methodology as described by Gibson & Graham (2006) as “the discursive “nonclosures” signaled by contradictory ways of thinking and speaking and the ethical opening of persons to one another that conversation provokes and enables.” in their book:

    They have a lot of thoughts on “ethical”, as well, defining “ethics [as] the continual exercising,
    in the face of the need to decide, of a choice to be/act/think a certain way”. I think this consideration is critical in collaborative processes, and especially alongside the pocketing of opinion, suspension of assumptions, and the holding of the ego (and opinion) so as to foster open space for transformative dialogue.

  2. Redwood Mary says:

    This is still a vital tool for our times! Thank you Fran! You are still remembered even though you are no longer with us!

  3. Just found this site. Brilliant thinking here.
    Bookmarked this sie. doesn’t happen much. Billy


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