Asking Beautiful Questions

This is a draft proposal for a project that I am interested in researching from my work in media and studies at SFU. I would appreciate your comments and feedback as well as any suggestions to help improve it.

Objective:
Whether news about our climate charged with the impending apocalypse or politically and socially charged events that challenge our cultural and tribal beliefs, they are all part of the “five-alarm fire” that Naomi Klein talks about in a shrinking and ever more challenging media landscape. We need more narrative or literary based inquiry and engaging, heartfelt conversations and storytelling that unpack the difficulties of our age and encourage citizenry to become active participants in our future. Where our public forums should be open and honest, media on all platforms is challenged with a toxic mix of polarised rhetoric, propaganda, and miscommunication. Thus the need for more creative ways to share stories that make a difference, that can compete with the trivial, and constructed through a particular lens and arrangement of events that begin by asking questions that touch our hearts and heads.

A beautiful conversation is an expression of the human heart. Like precious works of art, they bring us closer together as we share stories about ourselves or a particular time in history that can leave an indelible record behind of humankind. Painting, sculpture, music, weaving, mosaics, storytelling and other arts are thought to be the soul of society’s collective memory and very much alive over the centuries. Our conversations allow people from different tribes, cultures and different times to communicate with each other with ceremony, ritual, and imagery. It’s no wonder that our conversations are more important than ever in our interconnected world.

Jonathan Haidt wrote that “morality binds and blinds us. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.” This project will assist in helping us find new ways to ask important questions that want to be asked in different ways by identifying our personal biases and embedded beliefs. By identifying our own triggers and psychological distancing that can get in the way we can bring our conversations, interviews, and stories alive, reaching hearts and minds, and encouraging positive social change.

Rationale / Background:
Many believe that we have lost touch with each other and that important stories are replaced by trivial distractions or the latest Trump tweet. Media on all platforms is challenged to find those spaces to share untold stories. As public relations expert Jim Hogan points out in I am Right and You’re an Idiot “a dark haze of unyielding one-sidedness has poisoned public discourse and created an atmosphere of mistrust and disinterest.”

As a broadcaster, researcher, and student of media, I have learned that the best conversations are those where the ability to listen and to ask generous questions brings out the best in those asking, as well as those answering. Being able to move beyond a public discourse of certainty or absolutism and understanding why achieving common ground does not have to be the goal. By letting go of the smaller questions and enlarging our language by going deeper, becoming more vulnerable, the conversation warms and opens as it goes below the surface. A beautiful question then is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we feel, perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about positive personal and social change as we share the stories of our time.

Confirmation bias can often get in the way of how we share these stories as it says much about human behaviour and reasoning. Humans have a tendency to look for or accept information that’s in line with their existing beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. These beliefs can get in our way before an interview, or a conversation begins. Our overall progress as a society is predicated on our learning and how to control these emotions and make decisions based on facts. However, it would appear that fact-based decision-making has not made as much progress in our society as it deserves because many decisions are overwhelmed by emotions or other dynamics such as our genes, ideologies, or beliefs which are substituted for facts.

Understanding our own bias and those of others can allow for new departure points within conversations and build bridges to more engaged storytelling and narrative or literary based inquiry. This project strives to illuminate the heart of an issue or point of view, and that place between science, fact, and embedded beliefs. Do we have the capacity to disagree with someone in a way that isn’t designed to shut them down? Can we find a common language around values and beliefs around particular issues that open up a conversation? Can we learn to speak to communities that can’t speak to each other and fill what Andrew Hoffman calls those “structural holes,” where we can build bridges and understanding? This project will allow me to explore how we build those bridges in our conversations and interviews.

Methodology:
This project will: (1) look at specific types of narrative-based inquiry and storytelling. (2) Showcase the best practices on different platforms and formats and explore who does it well. (3) Illustrate the many types of conversations and questions that close or open a dialogue. This work will go deeper reviewing the work of Paul Graham who has developed the Hiracaary of Disagreement derived from heated social media conversations; Dan Kahane and the Cultural Cognition Project who examine the impact of group values on perception of risk and related facts and how these impact our conversations; Andy Hoffman, Krista Tippet, David Whyte, Johnathan Haidt, Katharine Hayhoe, Naomi Oreskes and others who all have something to offer about the art of conversations and learning how to ask generous and often difficult questions.

The challenge it seems with the changing voices and platforms in media is how to find more bridges between science, logic and fact-based journalism and to reach beyond various cultural and tribal beliefs, the left or right, winners, and losers, that get beyond right or wrong. This project will provide that opportunity.

Anticipated outcomes:
This project lends itself to lectures, as well as interactive seminars and workshops. This work will benefit anyone who wants to get better at having deeper conversations whether personal or professional. Anyone who feels uncomfortable discussing difficult issues with another person; and anyone wanting to develop the skills to ask beautiful, generous questions with a view to expanding the trajectory into the heart of a story/conversation!

Lectures:
Identifying key works, best practices, findings from research and field experience. This will be compiled from hundreds of hours of personal on-air interviews and examples from some of the best journalist’s/interviewers in the world on various platforms such as Associated Press, The Toronto Star, National Public Radio, BBC, CBC, and others.

Seminars:
Interactive courses/discussions that can be designed in modules to review: The psychology of questions, formal and informal styles of communication and when to use each. How to develop empathy, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; the power of silence and when to use it. Understanding and identifying manipulative and persuasive questioning techniques, the various channels of communication and how to recognize which channel is appropriate. How to recognize multiple persuasion styles, how to work and manage virtual teams, how to communicate cross-culturally. How to build bridges with words and pictures!

Workshops:
To facilitate open, spacious workshops that invite discussion about existing projects within various cohorts and working groups to overcome obstacles or existing barriers and to provide deeper pathways that assist in bringing the project and story alive.

Suggestions? don@donshafer.com