Good Questions

I’ve always loved good questions as much as the answers.

Questions open doors. They can build connection.

Patti Digh’s weekly news from the Orange Desk is a welcome read. Informative, interesting, quirky. This week Patti quotes the writer, Rainer Maria Rilke:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Digh adds, “There’s another step that Rilke is missing here. Yes, live the questions. But also tip the questions up on their nose, fling them into the air, and see where they land, much as William Burroughs cut up his writing and let it fall where it may. Shake the questions, flip them, enlarge them, and ask them to invoke imagination, not certainty.”

Digh continues, “…Humans tried to create flying machines for a long time by asking, “How can a machine fly like a bird?” Over and over, this question was asked, to no avail. Finally, German aviator Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896) turned the question upside down. He asked, instead, “How does a bird fly like a machine?”  This tiny shift was enormous. Turning the question around made all the difference. As a result, Lilienthal was the first to make well-documented, repeated, successful flights with gliders, making the idea of “heavier than air” a reality. Newspapers and magazines published photographs of Lilienthal gliding, favorably influencing public and scientific opinion about the possibility of flying machines becoming practical.”

Celebrant Questions

In terms of celebrancy, the questions we ask individuals, couples or families can determine the conversation that unfolds. For example, when a person says, ‘We want something simple.’ You might reply by offering to keep it short. Or, you could ask a question to find out what ‘simple’ really means for them.

‘I wonder if having a simple ceremony means you don’t want anything that is fussy or overcomplicated. Is that it?  Usually this would lead to couples sharing what they really want… or don’t want. Simple doesn’t necessarily mean short. And, it may. Clarity can be gained by asking open-ended questions.

I was meeting with a deceased gentleman’s recent partner and the deceased’s adult offspring. One wanted a Christian reading and the other, a secular poem. The air became a bit tense and so I paused, took a breath, and asked, “I’m guessing the prayer and the poem  are important pieces of writing and meant a lot to your dad/partner at different times of his life. What is it about the prayer and the poem that stands out for you?”

The each spoke about the meaning they took from the words: it was a way to live life, to encourage contribution, contemplation, compassion and kindness. This discussion on its own softened everyone’s mood.

I could then see my way forward to make a request: would they like me to create a blessing/prayer based upon both. Everyone loved the new version that combined the calling of the prayer and the positive nature of the poem.

Good Questions can create connection and understanding.

Throughout life we ask questions. What questions do you have? How can they be flipped? Flung up into the air? Invoke creativity?

I’ve included here Patti Digh‘s examples of generative questions from her newsletter this week:

Practice asking generative questions

Digh writes, “Sometimes a question is needed to open up the possibilities, not shut them down. Generative, not reductive. Sure, we know not to ask “yes” or “no” questions, but there is something beyond that that we need to learn. Here are some examples:

  • Not “What’s the worst that could happen” but “What’s the best that could happen?”
  • Not “How are you?” but “What are you most passionate about today?”
  • Not “What do you think about ______?” but “How does thinking about _____ feel to you?”
  • Not “Why do you feel that way?” (a question that requires someone to validate their feelings), but “How does this feel in your body” or “Have you ever had this feeling before—what was that situation like for you?” [Note: “Why” questions are often touted as high-level questions, but they often require someone to validate their perception or feeling and are often best avoided when there is another way to get there…]
  • Not “Have you thought about doing ______?” but “What if you could do something unexpected in response—what would that look like?”
  • Not “Can you do _____ for me?” but “Can you imagine an instance in which you would do _____ for me?”
  • Not “How are you going to do that?” but “What do you think this will look like when finished?” or “How will it feel to have finished this?”
  • Not “That’s not true,” but “What would it mean in your life if it were true?”
  • Not “How do you know that?” but “What personal experiences have you had that led you to believe that?”
  • Not “Why are you asking?” but “What are you trying to uncover?” or “What is the question behind that statement?”
  • Not “Why aren’t you getting this work done?” but “What is blocking you from getting this work done?”

Focus on helping people imagine themselves as an answer. Flip those questions, shake them up, and invoke imagination, not proof.

How does a bird fly like a machine?”


Image: Wendy Haynes. Dodda Vine on South Molle Island 2023

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6 months ago

Practicing generative questions! So useful to me right now, Wendy! Many thanks for your self-expression and information-sharing habits stimulating ideas and creativity, and so thoughtfully enriching my life and those of many others 🙏

Last edited 6 months ago by Maria
6 months ago

Thanks Wendy, I learned a lot from this!