05 October 2009

Call for the Question

Suppose you walked into a party, and the host said to you: "Folks, there's only one rule for tonight's festivities. You may ask all the questions you want, but the only statements you can make will be in response to a question.  In other words, you may not start conversations with statements about yourself or your observations, unless a question has been put to you.  I will be circulating among you to be certain that you do not digress.  And please, allow a little time to unfold between your responses; don't be afraid to take that moment to allow yourself to digest the question before you respond.  Have fun, and don't be afraid to ask any question."

Ponder this a moment.  Really allow yourself to imagine a past situation you were in, be it a social event or a meeting, and imagine all the characters and how they approach you, and see yourself in the situation, mainly asking questions (queries) and only responding to the ones that are put to you.  Drop your expectations of the event, and allow the situation to unfold.

Isn't this the quaker practice of worship sharing taken to a new limit?  How do your imagine your own behavior might change were you prompted to view all of your interactions from the perspective of worship sharing and to focus on the questions rather than the answers?  Is this the manner in which you go out to greet the world?

These are some of the queries that surfaced as I entered the Visioning Retreat at Baltimore Yearly Meeting (BYM), even before we began the actual process.  Thanks to the creative genius of Michael Marquardt, we were introduced to a new way to think and work on 8 challenges that the staff of BYM put before us.  We broke into small groups, each one addressing a query, and set upon our task.  

I was surprised to see how uncomfortable we seasoned Friends were with a process that we would view as a part of our core, when it was put into this context.  It tuned me into my own presumptiveness when I come into a situation like this retreat:  that I am already primed with ideas and agendas that I might not even consciously be aware of, and that are certainly not seasoned in the Light.

Michael Marquardt is a professor of Human Resource Development and International Relations at George Washington University and President of the World Institute for Action Learning, the organization that teaches "Action Learning," the process described above. (http://wial.org,     http://www.gwu.edu/~elliott/faculty/marquardt.cfm) He is a Quaker and a member of Herndon Meeting.  To my knowledge, this was his first time bringing his cutting edge process to his own "family" of Friends.  Michael is like so many other Friends over time, who have quietly integrated their own manner of living as a Friend into their business practices.  In this case, Michael has actually taken his translation of a part of our Quaker process into the secular world of business, across continents and around the world.  As one who has often pondered what impact Quakers might have on global decision making, this was very exciting to learn!

It was delightful to be called to accountability to live our own manner so succinctly.  In each group were coaches whose job was to keep the time frame, help with clarity, and hold us to the task of the day:   to consider the query and utilize questions to creatively move through the process of responding to that challenge.  Of course, being Friends and comfortable with queries ourselves we had some questions for Michael too:  "Can we have a period of worship?"  "Can we redefine the question?"  "What happens in the executive world, do people end up taking a vote?"  (Michael assured us that in all of his years working with this method, no one has ever come to a vote.)

I'll have another post on the actual challenges that were put to us to work on, but for now I'll just focus on the process.  While Michael was encouraging us to think outside of the box, I was aware of how much he had done just that in his development of the Action Learning method of problem solving. 

What's fun about an experience like this is the personal awareness it calls us to.  When what may be our usual practices are put into a different box, or called a different name, we may fail to recognize them as our own.  The difficult part of this is how we may struggle with the "new" concept, failing to see where it fits in our own toolbox of constructs.  The titillating part is in being called to look at our own process with new eyes, and see the way that process then reflects back through the rest of our being.

In our group there was a bit of a struggle to decide if we were doing things the "right" way.  We wondered if we should redefine the question as we went along, rather than just living the one we had.  We wanted to inject our own ideas into the mix rather than stay on the task of answering the ensuing questions put to each of us or the group as a whole.  We balked at trusting the process.  Some of us had to put our own agendas aside to be truly present.

To be fair, we were doing a condensed version, scheduled to fit in this 5 hour retreat.  This did put a bit of pressure on us to move at a pace much faster than our usual Quaker amble.  I believe that the whole concept of Action Learning is to move beyond the linear model of thinking into a more circular one, and this is probably a struggle for many of us even in a more accomodating time frame.

It was a breath of fresh air in what could have been an arduous process.  As we laughed and wrangled our way through, the time passed incredibly quickly.  I noticed no yawning or dozing.  Some of the ideas that rose to the surface were solutions we are used to hearing, but many were new observations or calls for a different approach.  

As I left the retreat, feeling energized, my mind whirling, I wondered what the continuation of the process will look like.  Will the new thoughts or out of the box ideas be raised to the top, so that they can be heard?  Will the spirit of ongoing revelation continue as we strive to bring vision to reality?  Will there be the opportunity for further use of this process to move us from suggestion to implementation?  Will the staid be able to move aside for the creative new?

I have no answers, only more questions.

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