Living in the World Our Questions Create.
“Language is the house of Being . . .” - Martin Heidegger
We explore Appreciative Inquiry a good deal at the Academy. A powerful concept that straddles the worlds of organizational development and clinical psychology. The idea, proposed initially by David Cooperrider, that we live in the world our questions create is one of those simple sounding aphorisms that takes time, perhaps in my case a lifetime, to metabolize.
So let’s sit with that idea. Could questions be “fateful” as Marilee Adams, Marjorie Schiller and David Cooperrider in their fantastic paper put it?
If you are like me, you are reading this and thinking ‘yeah, whatever…’ Life is way too complicated for something as simple as a question to shape my fate.
The foundational thought that appreciative inquirers are exploring is that questions have an energy. An energy that will help us be more generative or degenerative in our lives.
To me, this possibility is utterly compelling and honestly, a little terrifying. I live with some pretty shitty whiny questions rattling around my head.
Consider the proposal that questions are tied to action. For example ‘hey what does that button do?’ Makes sense right?
Questions lie at the heart of what we spend time thinking about: ‘what would a midlife wisdom school look like’ could launch an entire chapter of your life. ‘Hey, how might that work better?’ might have you create something completely innovative or ‘why don’t we get along?’ might have you digging for problems in your relationships. In this context, questions may well be fateful…
Each one of these questions has an energy. It is either lean in or lean out. You feel it in your body. Appreciative Inquiry is about finding something to appreciate. Another way of thinking about it is finding something that could appreciate in value if you focused on it. We often refer to this as a ‘generative question.’
I am always moved by our late friend and teacher Dr. Danny Friedland’s question when faced with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis. I am sure he was scared. I am sure he felt the situation was unfair. I am sure there were days when he raged against fate as he thought about his wife and two young sons. He may have framed each of these struggles into a question (like ‘why me?’). But the question he landed on, the question that helped shape his remaining days, was a beautiful one crafted by a master questioner: Danny asked himself ‘what is important to me right now?’
Feel into that question for yourself for a moment.
The question in no way denies the situation, the stress, the fear or the anxiety. So many practices I have come across seem to demand that we stop worrying about what is, detach from our perceived reality. The question ‘what is important to me right now’ ensures a focus on whatever is generative within that specific moment.
The question and the practice behind it is a gift. Questions are catalysts for attention, energy and curiosity. I believe our questions are fateful.
Jeff Hamaoui is one of the co-founders of MEA and the Chief Education & Innovation Officer.