Tell me a story, about …

September 11, 2013

The best way to shares our lives. or visions, our dreams, our fears . . . is by telling stories.  And one of the best ways to do the same things about our organizations (profit or non-profit) is to tell stories.  Opening ourselves to a story telling mindset is very adaptive.

Recently I was mentoring somebody who was very conflicted about whether to proceed on a certain path.  He wasn’t clear that he wanted to reach that destination, and was equally unclear whether the words associated with the celebration of that path were words he could say with integrity.

I was in no position to offer advice.  I couldn’t know which direction was preferable, and, besides, i was his “mentor” but not his guide.  it would have been appropriate for me to even try to chart his course.

But I could offer the following process:

  • Tell me  a story about following that path and where it takes you.
  • Then, tell me another story about standing back, and not following that path.  Where does that leave you?

Note that neither of these were requests to analyze, measure, or weigh.  He’d done that a lot already, and that process only added to the inner conflict.  Instead, I was asking him to let stories flow — and, indeed, they did.

It quickly became clear that the words associated with the certification were a crucial concern.  The destination might have been right, but the words were an obstacle.

Again, story telling was the way forward.  I asked him to create a story of a certification process that had resonance, with words he could easily say and stand behind.  Then, I suggested, he might explore how much freedom he would have to use his words and his process.

I never heard that story, and don’t know exactly what pathway opened up.  But he was able to follow a solid path to that destination, and I do know that he found the clarity he sought.

Did it matter that I never heard the inward part of this story?  Not at all!  Some stories are meant to guide us, and not to inform the rest of the world.

The same kinds of stories can guide non-profit organization and even for-profit corporations as they plan program, product lines, service offerings, etc.  I recall vividly one occasion where I was asked to help re-design some software — following guidelines that intuitively seemed quite wrong to me.  I spent several days watching their staff using the current software as they talked on the phone with their customers or clients, and listening to both sides of each phone call.  Finally I was able to blurt out a very simple version of what seemed like the iconic story behind each interaction.  The staff was thrilled to hear it stated so simply, and found that the story we had exposed led directly to a greatly improved and simplified version of the software.

As I look forward to each dialog with a client or prospect, with a non-profit board member or concerned stakeholder, with a troubled director or an engaged staff member, the five words that are almost always at the tip of my tongue are, “Tell me a story, about . . .”

Recently I was asked to comment about how best to engage donors to a nonprofit.

My answer — Ask the right questions.  Decide what conversation you’d like to have, and figure out what QUESTIONS will start that off.  Donors like to be listened to, like to be heard, and like to be treated as important.  Asking the right questions, and then listening carefully will make a huge difference.

Is there a story that you’d like to tell. Don’t just blurt it out. Wait for the question, to which your story is a wonderful answer.

An example: “Why have you been so generous with us . . . with three very significant contributions in just the past year?”  That’s not a question many fundraisers would ask. But prompting the key donor to review his or her satisfaction in supporting your work may be more effective than any words you might provide about why your work matters.

One caveat, however:  You must care about the answer you will receive.  Asking questions just for effect won’t work at all.  The donor or prospect may surprise you, may confirm your understanding or expectations, may challenge you.  But, whatever its effect, the answer will be important.

The importance of the answer – That’s a major part of what makes a great question.

One caveat

I’m just beginning to design two new “Skillbuilders” (workshops) for the Maine Association of nonprofits. Workshop design comes easy to me, and I’ve a track record of considerable success. Still, I’m expecting to learn significant lessons as we first experience these workshops being presented to live audiences. How can I maximize my learning from these pilot runs?  And how can I organize my initial work so that these questions are clear?

My first rule is to always list the goals, and design the evaluation process, before completing the workshop design itself. Just the titles, in this case “Asking Great Questions” and “Crafting Your Elevator Speech”, are not enough.

For example, digging deeper into my “Asking Great Questions” agenda, I began to see such questions as:

• Who should be learning what about the process of creating, editing, and asking questions? (Who is our target audience?)

• What key ideas or understanding do we believe participants in the skillbuilder should take away? (What are we aiming to teach?)

• What experiences (not what lessons) will have make this happen?

• Are there important things that participants may need to un-learn? (What habits, or what blindness, are we trying to overcome?)

Working with such questions early in the workshop conception stage, I began to see that the kinds of questions that might fit into an employment interview are very different from those that we might want to ask of other stakeholders in our organization, of lawmakers or regulatory officials, of teachers or of researchers and guides whom we trust.

With each clarification of the goals comes new clarity about how to observe and measure whether we have achieved those goals. And, so, the evaluation process is built as the workshop is designed. Even more important, the questioning process informs the whole conception of the workshop.

In fact, I needed to create another set of questions, to evaluate my initial description of the Skillbuilder, before even developing the main workshop agenda:

• Who will the description attract, and are these the people I want in this skillbuilder?

• What expectations will the description create, and is this an expectation that I can and want to fulfill?

• The skillbuilder will be require very active participation, and will include little content that can be received passively.  Will that be clear and a positive aspect of participant’s experience (or will there be comments about the lack of Powerpoint slides with detailed text guides)?

Thinking about this process led me to look back at the first outline I wrote for an earlier Skillbuilder I had developed with Deb Nelson. Along with my first rough draft outline, I had sent her a memo with a heading “Questions for Us”, and the following content:

• Our goals for the workshop

• What we have to tell or teach vs. participants learning from each other

• How we will know we have succeeded — Key evaluation question

• Possible pitfalls — What should not happen?

• Personal goals — Why we are doing this

Ask yourself these and similar questions as you prepare your presentations, your lectures, your workshops.  Even when the answers seem to be obvious and so clear, write them down. Revise that draft copy. And let your questions be your guide.

I’ve identified six critical skills, that serve me well in my coaching and consulting.  In fact, I think these may be all the skills that I need.

But check me on this.  Comment on this blog with what you think might be missing or wrong.

1. Listening (and looking, and listening)

Listening is an active process.  It’s not summarily waiting until the other speaker is done, so that you can respond!  At best, it includes offering some feedback, that allows you to test whether you’ve understood.  And the other modes — looking and listening — are just as active.  As a photographer, I have to constantly ask myself, “What’s visually interesting her”, and, “What am I seeking?”

2. Asking great questions

Lots of questions come from a wrong place — trying to show off, or make the speaker wrong, or some such.  Great questions illuminate, open up a deeper dialog, expose important issues.  They may also show some bias or committment, but they are not argumentative debating points.

3. Giving and receiving feedback

The most helpful feedback is offered with understanding and compassion.  It may be as simple as, “I see you doing this, and wonder why you feel you need to?”.  Feedback to you is best received as helpful advice — not as criticism.  It’s coaching, editing, insight that can refine, sharpen, augment.

4. Design thinking

A good design is an economical, functional, beautiful solution to a well-understood problem.  It may be an elegant bridge that supports many cars, or a simple tool to cleanly cut pieces of pie.  A design may be a process, an interaction, or may be embodied in an object.  Design thinking is focused on creating such full solutions, rather than makeshift steps that appear to solve an immediate problem.

5. Feeling and showing empathy and respect

Conflict can be constructive, if we see those who differ from us as helpful messengers of new points of view.  Even if those points of view seem to us completely wrong, perhaps even counter to our core values, an empathetic and respectful relationship leads us to seek understanding, welcome deep sharing.

6. Integrity, including being able to say “I don’t know”

Truth telling is becoming increasingly rare these days, but it still matters.  And one of the most important truths — especially in business situations, is that we don’t know the answer.  Why not just say so?

This post is in draft form, and I’ll welcome your comments as I complete it.  I felt it was best to post it here, so that you comments can be  based on this very specific — if incomplete — draft document.

Whenever I attend a lecture or meeting, I’m usually one of the first to ask questions.  When the meeting is over people often  come up  with thanks  for my “great questions”.  I’m typically surprised that they haven’t asked similar questions of their own, but I’ve also come to understand that my questions do have certain characteristics that make them helpful and appreciated.  Thats good, because I’m a curious person and want to ask more questions, and still more.

Much of my work is also about asking questions.  My coaching practice (I prefer to call it “clarifying”) involves asking powerful questions.  Responding to these helps my clients find insight and clarity.  In helping to make technology more “user friendly”, I’m always asking — or wanting to see — how users try to use a computer system (or other technology), and notice when they get helpful clues and when they get stuck or pointed in an unhelpful direction.  In my general business consulting, I’m asking questions about how an organization or product adds value, about how it is perceived, and about where theory and practice of what’s going on might diverge.  Finally,  in my dance photography, I’m asking visual questions, to see what’s interesting, perhaps visually compelling, and can tell the story of the dance and of my response to it in a visually interesting way.

What makes a “Great Question”?  It’s hard to define, and I’m tempted to compare this task with that of defining pornography.  Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart stayed away from that one, but said simply, “I know it when I see it.”  However, I think I can do better than that in defining what makes a great question.

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What makes a great question?

September 26, 2009

What makes a great question?

Of course I have my ideas about this one.  All of my consulting and “clarifying” (my term for “coaching”) involves asking questions that illuminate, that invite understanding and inquiry.  Even in doing photography, I often start with questions.

But this one is for you!  I’ll be interested to see your responses