The Art of a Good Question

December 12th, 2017

A guest post from Max Hardy of Max Hardy Consulting.


The opportunity to deliver a TEDx talk was something I felt I couldn’t ignore. Landing on a topic, on a headline, proved to be challenging.

I was encouraged by the St Kilda TEDx team to make it personal, and to focus on a single message. In the end I decided to focus on two things, and tried to weave them together. The first, scoping and framing questions for community engagement is often poorly thought through; secondly, the reason we see poor questions asked of communities is that so little is expected of them.

So in this TEDx talk I share stories about this, and reflect on the wisdom of David Cooperider and Albert Einstein. The former said

‘Our questions are fateful; we live in the world our questions create.’

I think that is so poignant when it comes to community engagement.

I had always been intrigued as to why organisations were surprised at outrage after they had worked so hard to ‘engage their communities’, when, upon closer inspection, all they had actually done was marketing. They had tried to sell their solutions or plans to the community. They hadn’t really asked anything of them, apart from, ‘Hey, do you think we have everything covered here?’ I have always found communites to have wisdom and worthwhile local knowledge. Always! And I have always found the dynamic is much more constructive when the assumption is made that we can all learn something worthwhile together.

Our questions of community can either build mutual respect, or undermine it. They can help people appreciate the complexity of an issue, or else polarise groups to dig in behind their positions. Sadly for some organisations a poor question elicits a strong reaction from the community, which reinforces their view that the community is always unreasonable, and not interested in ‘the facts’ or the logic behind what is being proposed. It becomes circular, and reinforces a unhelpful dynamic.

We can do so much better. I am increasingly confident that better questions, more positive expectations, and a genuine curiosity will foster more productive conversations and better decisions. I also believe it can leave a legacy of more cohesive communities, greater trust and more collective intelligence. That is only due to the many positive experiences I’ve had in this field. You would think after 20 years I would be more jaded. Well, I’m not!