Why is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

A couple of weeks ago, I spent time with a group of leaders in Singapore working on how to form better questions as part of a workshop on leading with agility. I returned home through Tokyo, which meant that I arrived in Dallas two hours earlier on the same day than when I departed Japan. You would think that after years of international travel, I would no longer be entertained by the idea of arriving earlier than I departed. “What happened to those two hours?” I thought when I landed in Dallas. Of course the question can’t be answered because it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding. However, asking myself the question got me thinking about nonsense, which in turn got me thinking about Lewis Carroll.

In Chapter Seven of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, after some back and forth about whether there is room at the table for Alice to join the Mad Hatter’s tea party, the Hatter poses the question, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” The precocious Alice is eager to work out the riddle, but gets caught up in the chaotic tea party conversation. Later, when the Hatter asks Alice about the riddle, she admits that she has not worked it out and asks the Hatter for the answer. He tells her that he does not have the slightest idea*.

Some nonsense questions amuse us in the same way we might be amused by the charming innocence of a child’s question. Decades before Bill Cosby shocked and disappointed a whole generation, my friends and I spent hours memorizing his routines. I can still picture the cover of his album, “Why is there Air?” Cosby’s question is elegant, simple and nonsensical. Asking, “Why is there Air?” and “What happened to the two hours I lost during my twelve hour flight?” indicate that the person asking the question is either confused or trying to be funny.

Like Lewis Carroll, I’m a fan of wordplay, puns and riddles. I pay close attention to how people express themselves looking for interesting or clever ways to interpret a turn of phrase. It turns out, not everyone delights in my attempts at wit. What I imagine to be an endearing habit quickly becomes obnoxious if I’m not careful.

The Unstuck Minds Method is based on the idea that you can tell a lot about how people think by paying attention to the questions they ask. The key to helping people explore the thinking behind their choice of question is not to place too much emphasis on their choice of words. Consultants should not engage with a philosophical or lawyerly mindset. Philosophers worship clarity. Lawyers weaponize clarity. Consultants and coaches should focus on constructing meaning, not deconstructing meaning.

Don’t focus on what the question means, focus on what the person means by asking it.

As an example, when a client frames a consulting request as, “How do we get people to be more accountable?” I need to let go of my reflex to dismiss the question as nonsense and instead, help my client clarify the unexpressed need. I might take an appreciative approach and say, “Tell me a story about someone acting with accountability to help me picture what you want more people to do.” Or, I might offer options to get the conversation moving, “When you say ‘accountable,’ is it more about keeping commitments or not blaming others or maybe it’s simply about complying with directives?”

I don’t ask questions to hear answers. I ask questions to summon insights. Answers are dead ends. Insights open doors. Sometimes people look forward to opening doors and sometimes opening a door can be scary. If the mind is stuck, then summoning an insight will be consequential. Not everyone is eager to chase a white rabbit down a hole without a companion.

 

*After the publication of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll was pestered to provide a response to the Mad Hatter’s riddle. Here’s a blog post describing Carroll’s response.

When is a Question not a Question?

I run for exercise. I don’t go fast and I don’t go far. I just like the way I feel after 30-40 minutes of exertion, and running is a convenient exercise if you travel a lot. I’ve reached an age where my doctor sees running as a risk rather than a benefit. When I complain about aches, pains or swelling, my doctor says, “get a bicycle.”

I notice that when I’m plodding along my running path and another runner passes me, I imperceptibly pick up my pace. I’m not aware of some intention to keep up or compete; it just seems to happen. As I watch the person open up distance ahead of me, my first thought is usually, “that person is much younger than me.” Or, if the person looks to be about my age I might think, “that person trained when they were younger and has probably run competitively.” These unflattering thoughts and behaviors last for at most 20 seconds and then my body returns to a comfortable stride and my brain returns to whatever I was thinking about before someone passed me.

I’m exercising to maintain health and reduce stress, but under certain conditions, my brain and my body seem wired for a different task.

The Social Psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term “Social Comparison Theory” in 1954 to describe research into what he concluded was our inner drive to evaluate ourselves. According to Festinger, when we don’t have an objective non-social standard against which to evaluate ourselves (e.g. Did I complete today’s run faster than yesterday’s?) we make our evaluations by comparing ourselves to others.

One related and more recent research study investigated the relative happiness of Olympic medalists based on which medal they won during the 1992 Barcelona games. You might expect that gold medalists would be happier than silver medalists and that silver medalists would be happier than bronze medalists.

The researchers gathered video clips of athlete reactions at the moment they learned of their results and when they received their medals on the podium. Research participants reviewed the video clips and assigned a rating to the emotional reactions of the athletes on a 10-point scale. The study concluded that bronze medalists were noticeably happier than silver medalists when hearing the results of the competition and when receiving their medals.

The researchers viewed their study as an extension of the concept of counterfactual thinking. In counterfactual thinking, people entertain thoughts of “what might have been.” In the study of Olympic medalists, the silver medal winners compared their result to the gold medalists. The bronze medalists on the other hand compared their result to the remaining athletes who did not medal. In other words, it’s not necessarily the objective value of what we have that matters. What matters is how we feel about what we have when we evaluate what those whom we compare ourselves against have.

So, what’s all this stuff about social comparison theory have to do with the recent Congressional committee hearings to investigate the actions of Deputy Assistant FBI Director, Peter Strzok?

One of the four strategies of the Unstuck Minds Compass is Collaborative Inquiry. Collaborative inquiry makes it easier for people to take concerted action. Theoretically, an investigative hearing is called in order to explore an important issue, to learn about critical incidents so that appropriate actions can be taken.

If we want to understand the thinking and behaviors of individuals in order to align on meaningful change, we have to keep our drive for social comparison in check when we choose our questions.

Social comparisons contaminate our interactions when the need to be right, the need to win and the need to look good become more important than the need to learn.

I’m not so naïve as to be shocked that Congressional investigations are not actually conducted for the purpose of investigating. Nor is one party more or less likely to use televised hearings to ask rhetorical questions masquerading as curiosity. The word, “inquiry” and the word, “Inquisition” may share the same etymology, but they couldn’t be farther apart in practice.

In case you missed it, have a look at the clip below and marvel at the litany of masterful questions designed to learn nothing.

 

Love Encounters Suffering: Questions for being with

The shocking deaths by suicide this week (two celebrities among the estimated 860 deaths by suicide every week in the U.S.) bring to mind Martin Buber’s powerful distinction between “experiencing” the world (the mode of I-it) and “encountering” the world (the mode of I-Thou). In the “I-it” mode, we are separate from what we experience, we operate in the realm of analyzing and judging. As a result, we inadvertently establish boundaries that separate ourselves from others. From an “I-it” frame of reference, we unconsciously presume that there is always a ‘thinker’ independent from the ‘thought of.’

 In the mode of “I-Thou,” we encounter the world by entering into relationship. We recognize the illusion of separateness; the word “other” loses its meaning. I, and that which I encounter, each become transformed through participation and relationship.

 The purpose of Unstuck Minds is to help people ask better questions so things can change. What I am learning this week, is the strength of my bias for asking questions that parse and separate. One can recognize and avoid thinking traps through questions that create useful distinctions. One can also recognize and avoid thinking traps by asking questions that remove the distinctions, which isolate and divide us.

 My daughter Bekah has spent several years learning, writing and speaking out about social anxiety, depression and suicide. I’ve invited Bekah to share her thoughts and questions. Questions that help us listen in the I-Thou mode. Ways of listening that help us understand the alchemy when love encounters suffering.

Seeing people around us suffering brings a response of uncertainty. Often, we choose to stay silent to avoid saying the wrong thing or making matters worse, but asking simple questions can foster meaningful connection in our relationships and within our communities. The power of asking questions and listening is often under-appreciated, but it is what I believe will create real change in our world.

Everyone you encounter is different, every situation is different and every story is different, but I would like to share the power of some general questions one can use to send the message of love and care.

  • How are you *really* doing? We ask people every day how they are doing, but unfortunately it has become a longer way to just say “hello.” Taking this question back to its original meaning to stop and allow someone to honestly answer is powerful.
  • What can I do to best support you? Another open ended question. This question gives insight to whether or not your goals are aligned with the person you are talking to. It is also a way for people to communicate their needs with you.
  • Have you ever felt this way? (With the follow up, what has seemed to help you in the past when things feel this way? This question gives empowerment and focuses on strength allowing someone to be reminded of all of the pain they have gotten through in the past while giving them the power to think of their own ideas.
  • You haven’t been yourself lately (give specific observations, you’ve been quieter than usual, you haven’t been eating as much, you’ve been sleeping a lot, etc.) How are you? Giving someone those observations shows that you see them, you’re paying attention and you care. Again, asking them how they are opens the door for an honest conversation.
  • Sometimes when people are feeling this way they have thoughts of ending their life. Are you having thoughts of suicide? This question can be daunting to ask, but it is so powerful. It allows you to understand their current crisis further while also sharing the message that you are comfortable talking about suicide. Asking this question does not put the idea in someone’s head and it can be life saving.

Reaching out to someone can be terrifying, but the most important thing is to show that you care and are willing to sit in that pain with them and listen. Follow their lead and allow them to drive the car. Our job is to simply be in the car with them helping to guide the way because we all need a passenger in our car sometimes.

For more information about how to help or to find support check out The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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Bekah Cone is a Biopsychology, Cognition and Neuroscience major at the University of Michigan and a counselor with the Crisis Text Line. She is currently on sabbatical from her Second City Improv Troupe, A Bunch of Ringos.

Everybody’s Talking at Me

Harry Nilsson’s Grammy award winning song has been stuck in my head all day. I actually met Harry Nilsson years ago when I managed a restaurant in Southern California called Severino’s. Nilsson’s sister and her partner Severino Surace owned the place. Nilsson decided to make a surprise visit to his sister and walked into the restaurant one busy Saturday night. He bypassed the Maitre D’, walked into the bar and started playing the piano. I didn’t recognize him, so I did what any attentive restaurant manager would do; I officiously insisted that a Grammy award winning singer/songwriter get up from the piano and stop disturbing the other patrons. In my defense he wasn’t exactly dressed for a night out at a high-end Italian restaurant. Luckily, Severino intervened before it turned into an argument by walking up to us and giving Harry Nilsson a big bear hug. Severino introduced me to Harry, after which I made some sort of lame apology and beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen.

As I told the story of my Harry Nilsson encounter to a few of my colleagues, I recognized that I had acted out the song title by “talking at” Nilsson. Now that I can’t shake the song, I find myself thinking a lot about the prevalence of “talking at” as opposed to, for example, “talking with.” When we have a responsibility, work to do and we need the cooperation of others to get it done, influence generally looks like “talking at.” The police officer says, “move along.” The clerk says, “next!” Even a request for information can feel like you’re being talked at, like when a bureaucratic agent at a call center asks with a blend of tyranny and boredom, “name and account number?”

The meeting rooms of our organizations have become arenas for talking at. Meeting participants take turns expressing important ideas in a bulleted list hoping to influence, inspire and/or inform. Recall something you heard that you found influential, informative or inspiring. My guess is that you are recalling a narrative or image not a list. We are wired to take in narrative. Narrative involves us, whereas a list on a slide highlights the separation between the presenter and those being presented to. In a recent letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos reiterated his prohibition against presenting ideas in the form of bullet points. “We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon.”

If you’re not ready to ban PowerPoint at your meetings, you could make one small change that will switch the level of involvement you get when you present.

Next time you have to make a presentation to people whose cooperation or approval you need, consider starting with the question, “What will you be listening for?”

Depending on the number of people in the meeting, you can hear each person’s answer or have them talk it over in small groups and then request a few responses. Giving people the opportunity to tell you what they need to hear not only helps you shape your presentation, it also creates an atmosphere of shared responsibility in the room.

What are you Listening for?

When engaged in conversation, humans don’t listen to something; rather they listen for something. At the beach, we listen to the sounds of the ocean. At a concert, we listen to the music. Something changes when we listen to another person, especially when that person is responding to a question we’ve asked.

To say that we “listen for” something is to call attention to the fact that when we pose a question, we are meeting a need.

In conversation with someone, you are attentive in different ways based on the context of the interaction and the life experience responsible for the thoughts and feelings that accompany your listening. The police investigator listens differently to the question, “where were you last night?” than a concerned friend wanting to know why you didn’t come to her party. Imagine you have just returned from a tour of wineries in Bordeaux, France. You are standing with a group of people at a dinner party and you strike up a conversation with someone you have just met. You ask, “How do you know our host?” The person tells you that she met the host at a wine and cheese tasting event at the museum of modern art. Odds are that the reference to “wine and cheese” will be more salient than the reference to “modern art.”

The questions we choose to ask are windows into our thinking. What we listen for is influenced by the interplay of who we are and how we are thinking and feeling. The questions we choose to ask are in turn, influenced by what we listen for. Getting stuck often means that the information you get from the questions you ask does not alter anything about who you are and what you think and feel about the situation. If we are not changed by the information we are getting, we won’t change what we are listening for. If we don’t change what we are listening for, we won’t be able to think of better questions. I refer to this simplified version of confirmation bias as, “the inquiry loop.”

To illustrate how the Inquiry Loop influences the emergence of information and options, let’s deconstruct two possible versions of an interaction between a manager and a team member during a one-on-one performance discussion.

Manager’s Inquiry Loop

Version One

Manager’s Inquiry Loop

Version Two

Manager’s thoughts and feelings about the situation This will be a short meeting; getting information from Barry is like pulling teeth. He gets his work done and doesn’t complain. No point in making this conversation awkward for either of us. I feel like I count on Barry year after year, but I don’t really know much about him. He never speaks up in staff meetings and I sense that he finds these annual one-on-one’s uncomfortable. I’m going to challenge myself to break the pattern and see if we can’t build rapport.
What the manager is listening for The information I need to complete the performance development form Something I never knew before about Barry that might spark an idea for how to make work better for him and maybe even help him be better at what he does.
Question

(Asked by the manager)

“I can’t believe it’s been another year. OK, Barry you know the drill. What are your three goals for the coming year?” Barry, before we get to the form I wanted to ask you something. The other day I went by your desk and saw a picture of you and maybe some friends dressed in some elaborate costumes. Forgive me for being nosey, but I was wondering what was going on in that picture?
Information

(How the team member answers the question)

Barry slips a piece of paper to his manager, “I answered all the template questions in writing to save us time.” Barry blushes and looks away. After a moment he says, “It was a cosplay competition at an Anime convention. I actually won an award for that costume, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear about the weird stuff I do on the weekends.”
Given, the team members’ response, the manager’s thoughts and feelings  

I knew he hated these conversations as much as I do. Maybe next year, we can get this done by e-mail.

 

I have no idea what he’s talking about, but obviously there is a passion for creative expression that we are not tapping into.

 

Of course, things get complicated when you consider that there is an inquiry loop at work influencing what the other person in a conversation is thinking, feeling and listening for. For our purposes, it is enough to develop our awareness of what influences our own questions and to develop our own ability to listen for a change when we feel stuck.

If you are a student or a practitioner of improvisational theater, you already know the emphasis improvisers place on the skill of listening. For the uninitiated, it may seem counter-intuitive that actors and comedians engaged in improvisations would prioritize listening over having something interesting to say. Keith Johnstone is a British theater director, author, playwright and teacher who pioneered a number of theater exercises and techniques. Johnstone’s philosophy of improvisation has a spiritual quality to it. For Johnstone, the great improvisers are channeling an emergent creation by being attentive, not by being prepared. In Johnstone’s view of the art form, improvisers don’t get stuck because they run out of things to say, they get stuck because they try to be clever and impose something on a scene and end up losing the thread of what is being created. Even when listening, we can impose ourselves. If I’m improvising onstage and eager to try out the Russian accent I’ve been practicing, I will listen for an opportunity to introduce a character from Russia. Johnstone beautifully described what great improvisers and great listeners are listening for. He wrote,

Instead of telling actors that they should be good listeners (which is confusing), we should say, ‘Be altered by what’s said’ (1999, page 59)

When we listen with an intention to be altered, the unstuck strategies disrupt the stabilizing effects of the inquiry loop by allowing a better question to prompt new information that in turn alters our thoughts, our feelings, and ultimately what we are listening for.

Johnstone, K (1999). Impro for Storytellers. New York, NY: Routledge