The power of questions

The Unconference 2013In the undergraduate course I teach on community engagement I ask students to have a conversation with two people. I ask them to ask one person about:

  1. What they think is wrong with their community?
  2. What are the major needs of their community?
  3. What could be done to address these needs?
  4. Who should take responsibility for fixing things?

I ask them to ask the other person about:

  1. What they think are the strengths of their community?
  2. A time they felt their community was at its best?
  3. What they value most about their community?
  4. How they think they could help improve their community?

As you can imagine the questions usually generate quite different responses. It is interesting reading what the students say about their experience of having these conversations.  Some would prefer to be asked the negative questions as they help to identify the needs of the community. Some prefer the more positive questions. Often, but not always,  the more positive questions lead to more optimistic, empowering, uplifting conversations. Most think both sets of questions are useful.

The first time I asked students to do it, I was really nervous. My nervousness sky-rocketed when the first two posts basically suggested that the negative questions worked better and were more engaging! As I wanted the exercise to highlight the benefits of looking at the  community strengths (the “half full” glass of asset-based community-driven development), I was worried. Fortunately most students see the benefits of positive questions.

It seems to me that the positive questions are often more empowering. The negative questions seem to encourage people to point the finger at other people and suggest that somebody else should be responsible for fixing things. The positive questions suggest ways forward that are in control of the people involved.

The exercise highlights the importance of how we ask questions. I certainly don’t think we should look at the world through rose-coloured glasses and pretend problems don’t exist. I do think, however, that we need to focus our energy on what are the strengths and assets of our communities, because they indicate a way forward. I don’t find focusing on what is wrong gets us anywhere in the long run. (Perhaps not surprisingly, my favourite quote is “It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness”.)

Focusing on strengths doesn’t mean that we ignore problems and needs; we need to hear, acknowledge and honour the issues and challenges face by communities. I believe, however, that we need to move past the problems and that our main focus should be on the assets and resources that can help create change or achieve goals. Often we know there are lots of problems in a particularly community and coming in with a totally different approach can be quite refreshing and rewarding for community members. They can be quite surprised that somebody is asking what is good about their community.

Where we need to identify needs of a community, I suggest it is important not to stop there (as all too often happens) and to ensure that we also explore the strengths and assets of the community. In exploring the needs of a community how we ask questions can make a big difference. Instead of asking “What do you think is wrong with your community?” we could ask “What are some of the current challenges your community is facing?” Instead of “What are the major needs of your community?” we could try “How do you think your community could be improved?” Instead of “What could be done to address these needs?” we could ask “How could you help improve your community?” Instead of “Who should take responsibility for fixing things?” we could try “Who are some of the some key people and what are some of the resources that could help create change?” Appreciative Inquiry offers a great alternative to exploring needs.

The exercise seems to be one that students enjoy and it can help them gain insights. As Sarah, one of the students, commented:

“I initially thought that the needs questions would elicit more conversation as it is my experience that people are readily available to have a whinge about what’s going on but don’t really mention anything when it going right. While this was true to start with, I found that once all the issues about what is wrong are out there, there’s not usually a whole lot of ideas about how to address them. This is where the strengths questions come in. They help to suggest what the community has available to help address needs and also highlights what is working so that you can improve on and duplicate it. I think both sets of questions need to be addressed when trying for community engagement but there should be more of an emphasis on strengths and assets and how these can be utilised and help.”

If you liked this post you might want to subscribe to the blog (top right-hand corner of the blog),  and you might like to look at:

  1. What is Appreciative Inquiry?
  2. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  3. Ethics and community engagement
  4. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  5. Asking questions in workshops

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
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