The other day I stepped in on a conversation between two people who were getting quite hot under the collar about a proposed housing development and shopping centre in bushland near where we live. One of the people was in favour of the proposal, the other against. They had stopped listening to each other and started to become personal. There’s only one way for this sort of encounter to go and that’s further down. I made my position known and managed to engage the person with the different view in what fairly quickly became a quite productive and respectful exchange of views.
Later on I wondered why. How did I manage this? Yes, I’m big, and fairly quietly spoken, certainly not loud and terribly threatening. But what else? Lots of previous experiences I think but one comes to mind.
In the mid 1990s I participated in a Strategic Questioning workshop conducted by the American social change activist Fran Peavey. The workshop was at Richmond in western Sydney. On the second day Fran organised participants into pairs to go in to the town and start conversations with strangers to discover how they were feeling about Aboriginal reconciliation. I was paired with a young woman of Asian origin who must have been about half my size and age. We approached a white man, on his own, aged in his mid-thirties and explained we were participating in a short course that day and that as part of the course we wanted to discuss with people their feelings about Aboriginal reconciliation.
Turns out that he wasn’t feeling that well about it at all and he let us know, with a range of negative views that he shared very freely and loudly. We listened and asked a few questions – following the strategic questioning approach and it wasn’t long before he was admitting he didn’t really know any Aboriginal people and most of his views came from certain elements of the media and popular stereotypes. His life wasn’t easy and he was angry at many things. After 20 minutes or so when we finished the conversation he thanked us for helping him think about the issue more clearly than he had before.
I’d recommend strategic questioning (find it via Google) to anyone interested in people – and isn’t that all of us?