An exploration in search of questions

Can we find a path back from the answers to the questions? Where to?

I'm going to trace out an imaginative journey that weaves together big issues from the past and the present in what I see as a beautiful and generative way. I'd like us to start with a situation of the kind I have been puzzling about in recent days. Let me generalise, because I see the real value here in the general rather than the particular.

Divisions in community

Imagine you are a member of a group that is important to you, because it realises, or embodies, several of the matters in life that you care about, deeply. I want to emphasise ‘deeply’, because to understand this journey, it has to matter to you. Different things matter to different people, so it would be less likely to work for you, if I were simply to spell out the details of the issue in which I am engaged.

I'd like you to imagine this group has several people – members, or people associated with it – who have been drawn together by some sense of shared values or shared identity. “Here are my kind of people,” we might have started to feel. Naturally, not everyone shares exactly the same values, and as people become aware of the values that are not identical, some discomfort begins to show. After all, it is a sense of shared values that have brought the people together in the first place, so naturally differences in values are a matter of concern. My sense is that the numbers matter here, so working from my experience I'll guess it may be about 50 or 100 people we are dealing with. Definitely more than a small group – that is, more than a dozen – but also within the bounds of what people might hope to be a small, coherent tribe: say, within the Dunbar number of around 150.

When people started out on this common venture, there seemed little need to spell out exactly what the values were. The people who got to know each other regarded each other as friends, perhaps even with a subliminal feel of family, and there was no idea that people might fall out over what seemed like slight personal differences of taste. But as people settled in, relaxed a little, let their guard down, felt able to speak more of what most mattered to them, what were felt at first as slight differences seemed to amplify into significant, even important differences. Those differences started to make some people feel unsafe in the company of others in the group who had a differing opinion. It started to feel like there were two sides, two factions, and the original sense of friendly togetherness had disappeared.

Do you recognise this? I have seen it more than once. I'm not referring to just one situation. Here I want to pause and reflect, because this is where I have seen people, and see people now, and there are different paths onwards. What paths have you seen? How has this developed in your experience? There's more material for reflection in some rather difficult statements in the Gospels, where Luke reports Jesus as saying that he has not come to bring peace, but division. Matthew reports similar words, with the more graphic image of bringing a sword. Definitely time to mull over what all that might mean.

Finding common ground

My life has inclined me to be a mediator, a peace-maker, where I can be, where my clumsiness and lack of awareness don't get in the way. So I was wondering what to do in these situations I have encountered. If the people concerned are open to restorative practices such as reflective listening, perhaps along with what has been called steelmanning of the position of the other side, then there is certainly some hope. I was thinking of what I can offer myself, and my inclination leads me to try to identify the common ground. What could be said that the ‘opposing sides’ would agree on? My sense is that it is not at all easy to be sure what this would be. So, rather than trying to come up with a solution, can I come up with a process that leads people towards that common ground?

Imagine a web-based spreadsheet, and down the left hand side, in column A, are a list of short position statements. Along the top, row 1, are written the names of people concerned. Imagine them written vertically, so the columns are narrow. The position statements down the side of the table have been drafted in an attempt to identify what all the people concerned might agree with. But of course they might not agree. So, to check, in each ‘position’ row, each individual puts a number representing their degree of agreement, in their own column. Imagine, as a simple example, a 5 point scale: ‘5’ might mean ‘yes, I could have said that myself’; ‘4’ might mean ‘well I wouldn't use quite those words, but in principle yes I agree’. ‘3’ might mean ‘I agree this in some ways, but not in others’; ‘2’ might mean ‘I see a lot wrong with this and it would be hard for me to agree to it’. Finally, ‘1’ might mean ‘this is the kind of opinion I stand firmly against’. We might add ‘0’ for ‘I don't understand this, or it is ambiguous’. The exact scale doesn't matter; it could be elaborated into more grades of agreement, similarly, for example, to what Sam Kaner proposes.1

I sometimes like playing with spreadsheets, and in several systems you can have conditional formatting, so you can choose a colour background depending on the value in the cell. When people have filled in the table, you would then get a nice quick visual impression of how well that statement succeeded in representing a common position. What next?

If someone doesn't fully agree, it could be open to them to try another version of that idea in another row. Or maybe a new, different idea. Each attempt to represent a consensus position is informed by the responses of others to the previous attempts. There need be no sense of judgement here – it can be seen as a collective enquiry into what is actually the common ground. The position statements are effectively crowdsourced – no central authority needs to approve the statements, as the process itself is designed to lead towards some kind of convergence.

Patterns could start to emerge, for example subgroups of people may answer in similar ways. That could be a useful pointer, whether pointing towards a suggested split along their different value sets, or towards areas where more dialogue would be useful for improving group cohesion. If more than one scale were used (though it wouldn't be as easy to see on a spreadsheet) clearer or deeper patterns might emerge, possibly including some leads on the way each individual approaches personal opinion, common ground and societal norms. For the technology, I'd use a database backend, and the display could be crafted visually. A lot more work, but much more powerful.

What are the real questions?

If I let this process run in my imagination, one of the less welcome outcomes could be that the statements became less and less meaningful – in popular culture this is represented by the English-language idea of ‘motherhood and apple pie’, which Wiktionary says means moving towards “Something that cannot be questioned because it appeals to universally-held beliefs or values.” So how do we avoid end up agreeing that “good things are good and bad things are bad”? Thinking this over, my mind went back to Mister God This Is Anna which I find a great source of ideas from time to time.

With regards to language itself, Anna was convinced that it could, by and large, be divided into two parts: the question part of the language and the answer part of the language. Of the two, the question part of the language was the most important. The answer part had a certain satisfaction, but was nowhere near as important as the question part. Questions were a sort of inner itch, an urge to go forward. Questions, that is real questions, had this about them, that they were risky things to play about with, but they were exciting. You never quite knew where you were going to land.

Elsewhere in the same book Fynn describes his struggles to grasp Anna's understanding of the relationship between questions and answers. Anna had a useful practice of wondering, which questions does that answer lead back to? That can help us now.

We can ask, for each of the attempts at consensus statement, which questions does that statement answer? By looking at the most useful questions that it could be answering, we can get a sense of the real value of the statement. Thus, if the statement led back to a question on which everyone would agree, it would be of very little use in defining distinctive common ground. Yes, sometimes it is useful to be reminded of matters that every human agrees on, but, I would say, not here. If the most useful question turns out to be of the form “is [whoever we are talking about] right or wrong?” then the answer seems likely to be a polarising position statement.

But if the position statement leads back to a question which has a variety of genuinely different authentically-held answers, we may be on to something. The challenge as it now appears is to think right the way through to questions that are well-crafted enough that everyone agrees on the question, and at the same time different people are happy to give different answers. That is, as far as possible, everyone identifies with at least one, but not all of the answers. Too many plausible different answers is likely to result in everyone appearing as individuals; but a small choice of answers, carefully crafted to include different people's views, can help differentiate different positions. Somewhere along the line to reach this insight, I jumped at the sudden recognition, “Ah! This is the CHOICE that I've been wanting for so long to bring forward!”

The process for crowd-sourcing and commons management of simple, multiple-choice but genuinely probing questions is, naturally, more involved than the process I sketched out above, just for the statements themselves. So getting people to manage these meaningful questions effectively as a commons will need stronger motivation. Nevertheless, that's where I want to go, and that's where I see the vision of a way forward, a way out of this memetic tribal battleground, which is where I started this piece.

Stepping along the path

What is this motivating pathway? This is the core insight I see today and the reason that I find it so engaging. I'm not letting go of this in a hurry! We start with common-sense attempts to find common ground. To be sure, not everyone will buy into that, because some people identify with being contrarian. But, I would hope, enough ‘non-violent’ people of good will exist to make this a viably motivating practice. Once this is engaged with, I imagine that it wouldn't be difficult to point to the value of the next step – to distinguish the more from the less useful common-ground statements, recognising that common ground is only meaningful, can only be recognised, in the context of the genuine differences of opinion or emphasis or value or priority which people naturally have.

My hope – is it a vain hope? – is that when people see clearly enough what the differences are, they will start to recognise the greater extent of what they have in common. Yes, many people will want to support their own football team, cheer them on, and celebrate victories over their rivals, but we all know that when confronted with a greater threat that affects them all, the team rivalries can be put aside, for the common good.

Perhaps it is the unknown unknown that haunts us. If we don't know the real extent of the differences between us and a neighbouring tribe, we can imagine that they differ in every way that we haven't checked out, including their very humanity. How often has that brought people to a state of utter hostility and war! In contrast, the more we can map out the extent of the differences, the more we can rest assured that the things we haven't mapped out as difference are more likely to be points in common. The more we know what the differences are, the easier it will be to explore dialogue ‘across the divide’, because we can see just how wide and deep the rift is. Almost certainly, it is less deep and wide than we fear, when we are caught up in the fear of the unknown unknowns.

When enough people recognise this, my fond hope is that the motivation to develop and use something like CHOICE will also become clearer. A system like that will enable any participant to find people who share similar views, which may serve to help them feel they have a safe, familiar home group or tribe; to find people with some similar views and specific different ones (where such people exist on the system), or indeed to find people with very different views, who also want to enter into dialogue with someone different. I have a clear sense that as people develop confidence, first in their own self-authored identity, then move on to recognise that they are not tied to one identity, but can transcend that, able also to identify with diverse people who might have seemed ‘other’, that this offers a genuine pathway towards overcoming memetic tribalism.

All this – driven by the insight that questions are more important, and more powerful, than answers.


1: Sam Kaner's scale, from the Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision Making, is reproduced in Mark Pearl's blog post from 2018. Many other similar scales can be found through web search.

Topics: CHOICE; Complex psychology; Current affairs

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