Channelling Fran Peavey – generating strategic questions for those who sponsor community engagement and collaboration

As many of you will know I have long been a fan of Fran Peavey; especially her work in developing the concept and practice of strategic questioning. Fran put forward the power of questions that make it impossible for the status quo to remain. Questions that create movement; questions that cannot be answered immediately, without giving serious thought. Questions that sometimes shake our foundations and certainty. Questions that make change inevitable and necessary.

If you want to know what I’m talking about check this article of Fran’s. And what I’m really curious about it is how strategic questioning can help to shift the practice of community engagement, especially those who commission it, and ultimately make decisions which are meant to be informed by community engagement.

I’ve been experimenting for the past 20 plus years; having been confronted with remarks such as these:

“I don’t really believe in community engagement. Nothing useful ever comes of it.”

“Where is the evidence that this is useful at all?”

“We have worked so hard to find an answer to this. We have years of collective experience. Once we go out to the community we are likely to have it all thrown out the window!”

“What we need is a process that delivers us a sensible outcome. We have to be able to persuade the community that this is the best possible result.”

“We have to be very careful. Very careful about certain people who we know who do not like us – who have an agenda!”

Now, it’s not as if there isn’t some validity to such concerns about community engagement. If decisionmakers/executives/sponsors of community engagement have only seen it undertaken poorly, and as a ‘Decide, Announce and Defend’ process, it is hardly surprising they have not experienced value for effort (however misguided).

Anyway, let’s bring back Fran. I have often asked myself, what questions might Fran ask of leaders and decisionmakers who are required to do community engagement, but don’t believe in it’s value. Here is a collection.

“What would you like the community and stakeholders to say about your organisation as a result of being engaged about this issue?”

“What might be the consequences of your community feeling like you are just going through the motions/ticking the box?”

“How differently would community engagement be undertaken if we believed it was valuable and useful?”

“What might it take for the community to appreciate the knowledge and skills of your organisation?”

“What is the most useful insight you have gained from someone outside of your organisation – about your business/ priorities?”

“If you have to do community engagement, what might make it a rewarding and useful experience for your organisation?”

“What might it be like to work with your community if much greater trust was established?”

“Can you recall the most memorable positive experience you have had when asked to contribute to resolve an issue being managed by another organisation? What happened? What made it so memorable? What might we learn from that experience you had?

Notice here that there are no ‘why’ questions. Questions starting with ‘why’ may be useful for understanding a situation; but they are not helpful for creating movement. ‘Why’ questions usually encourage people to dig in where they are; to be defensive; demanding a justification. ‘How’ and ‘what’ questions are a much better way to make space for movement.

It’s important to remember that Fran said there is no guarantee any question will always be strategic. It will depend on many factors. But you know it’s a really powerful strategic question when there is no immediate answer; when it compels people to think, to reflect, and to challenge their assumptions. Often, it’s like a ‘deer looking into the headlights’, where they become frozen and immobilised, even for just a second or two. When you have that kind of response you know you have landed a truly strategic question.

Whether or not you are familiar with the art of strategic questioning I’m curious to learn what questions you have posed to facilitate a shift. Or even a question you have been asked that had a profound effect on you, and your practice. Feel free to share!

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