Hypothetical & Reflexive Questions (PJS)
Exzerpt aus: Catherine Kano Kikoski und John F. Kikoski: The Inquiring Organization. Westport, London 2004. S. 138ff
Hypothetical or future questions also are useful in clarifying a present situation that is problem ridden. Whenever one thinks about a future situation, one is likely to situate it in a new context. In wrapping a future context around the present, one opens new pathways among different levels of meaning. This recursive process opens up a system to change by reintroducing its own ideas about its future by creating a new context.
In difficult situations, one implicitly feels "hemmed in," "pressured," or "overrun" by the surrounding problems that — according to systems theory — are part of the context. By forwarding us into the future, hypothetical or future questions, situate us in a new context that is devoid of problems, but replete with possibilities. By wrapping it around our present context — one that is replete with problems, but devoid of possibilities — and allowing them to interact and react with one another, a recursive process opens up the system to change by reintroducing its own ideas about its future, and thereby creating a new context—or a new future.
Lynn, the CEO of the company, is meeting with Bill, a division head. They are discussing an important project that Bill is heading up, which is falling behind schedule.
Lynn: I'm glad to see you, Bill. I understand that there have been some difficulties meeting the project's deadlines. I wonder if you could fill me in on the situation?
Bill: This project is difficult. I don't understand why we can't move forward on it.
Lynn: Right now, you are meeting the deadlines on your other work. I just wonder if there are any ideas you can take from your current projects to improve on the future status of your problem project.
Bill: I know what you mean. I have met my deadlines on all the other projects that I am working on. But this one is different.
Lynn: Could you tell me what is different about this project?
Bill: Right now I am at my wits' end. I just can't see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Lynn: Would you like to talk about what's going on?
Bill: Lynn, there are all kinds of difficulties with this project. The team seems sluggish, I don't see a commitment on their part. In addition, our budgetary and human resources are paper thin.
Lynn: Bill, if you were. to infuse this team with energy tomorrow, what would you do?
Bill: All of a sudden, I have an outlandish idea! Are you ready for it? What comes to mind is to take a whole day off from work with the team, and go somewhere where we can just brainstorm ideas. Sort of a retreat with some fun time built in.
Lynn: Sounds great, but just how would you go about it?
Bill: Well, I haven't thought it through, but my gut reaction is to go off someplace and just brainstorm together about how to handle this project. Probably spend the whole day talking to each other about it away from the cues of the office.
Lynn: What possibilities might this open up?
Bill: Maybe instead of assigning jobs to people, as I have been doing, we will open it up to talking about who wants to do what job, who will work with whom, and things like that. I wonder if that's been the logjam. Now, even I am getting excited at the idea that everyone will be doing what they like to do and are best at. In this way, I don't have to assign the jobs.
Lynn: I am curious about what ideas you have to structure the day?
Bill: Only one idea. I am going to ask the team to structure the whole day themselves. That ought to fire them up. In fact, all of a sudden I feel fired up myself. Lynn, I can't believe where these ideas came from. How do you feel about them ... boss?
Lynn: I feel excited by what I hear you describing. How do I sign up for your team?
In this scenario, using hypothetical questions, Lynn triggered the emergence of fresh, new ideas and viewpoints into the conversation and, more importantly, into this particular situation. Instead of remaining focused on the problems of the present — which tends to be the way most managers respond — Lynn opted to connect the present to the future by introducing the idea of Tom's success in meeting deadlines on his other projects. Lynn chose not to focus on the problems of the present, but instead asked hypothetical questions about the future. This helped Bill to relax and start thinking about a new context that, in turn, triggered fresh possibilities to devise new alternatives. Bill's construction of a new, more positive future context recursively opened up new avenues for change by introducing his new ideas about the future into the present. Through the use of hypothetical questions, Lynn helped Bill "pull the future into the present."
Reflexivity and Reflexive Questions
It may be relevant to begin by defining and explaining the concept of reflexivity prior to introducing reflexive questions. The concept of reflexivity refers to a "bending back" or "folding back" onto oneself. It may be envisioned as a horizontal "figure eight" communication pattern that reflects and folds back onto itself, thus reintroducing more feedback with each cycle. Reflexivity is a recursive, interactive process that takes place between individuals in which new thoughts, different ideas, or alternative meanings are developed, modified, and/or maintained. Formerly, images of communication resembled straight-line arrows with a single feedback loop. The increase in multiple feedbacks generated by reflexivity better fits today's high-velocity and nonlinear environment by triggering a greater number of perspectives. It is an active process that helps surface more than one meaning or views on a situation. Individuals who come from different hierarchical positions, for this reason alone, may see the same situation differently, and draw different meanings that, in turn, evoke different feedback. Thus, reflexivity is a self-generating process that constantly spawns new perspectives and ideas into the system.
Reflexive questions are a third type of systemic question. They are asked with the intention of facilitating self-discovery by an individual or a group via activating a folding back of perceptions, experiences, and beliefs. This recursive process promotes "meaning making" within individuals. It enables the generation and broadening of self-constructed patterns of cognition and/or action.
To use reflexive questions effectively, it may be important to ask them in a nondirective and soft tone. The intention is to use these questions more like a probe that can cause a gentle ripple within one's thinking. Such mild perturbations are likely to spark some action that enables new connections and alterations in the organization of one's many thoughts and meanings. The success of using these questions comes from respecting the ability of individuals to find their own answers to questions, and their own solutions to problems. More than any other type of question, reflexive questions "call forth" personal or tacit knowledge.
In the following vignette, Mary, the regional vice president of a financial services company, is talking to Bruce, an industry veteran who is a year away from retirement. Mary is Bruce's boss, although she is more than two decades younger than him. Despite their age and rank difference, they have established an extraordinarily warm and mutually supportive relationship. It is the end of a day, and Bruce has just dropped by Mary's office to visit for a few minutes, as he so often does.
Mary: Please come in, Bruce. This has been a particularly trying day, and it is good to see you and just take some time out to talk.
Bruce: What made your day so trying, Mary?
Mary: On top of everything I have to deal with every day, I have a growing problem with some managers who report to me. To make a long story short, I sense a great deal of resistance from them to any idea I propose on the issues they bring to me.
Bruce: When you look back on these meetings, what could you have done differently?
Mary: That's a good question. When I am in the midst of these meetings and sense that my ideas are being ignored, I probably become defensive. But to go back to your question, I ought to be able to respond differently.
Bruce: I wonder, Mary, what impact your reaction might have had on your managers.
Mary: By the looks on their faces, I do not think they valued my comments. And in fact, I may have to rethink the position I took, and most likely deal with this situation differently.
Bruce: Mary, if you did change direction, what do you think might happen?
Mary: Maybe, if I didn't push my ideas so hard and listened more, they may become less oppositional.
Bruce: If you became more open to your managers' ideas, do you think it would be more or less likely that they would behave differently?
Mary: Touche! You know, Bruce, that's probably the only way to manage effectively today. I wonder if it might be better for me to first listen to others' ideas before jumping the gun. That makes for synergy all around.
In this vignette, Bruce helped Mary to solve her dilemma by asking a series of reflexive questions. In so doing, he facilitated the bending back of Mary's perceptions and experiences of her encounters with her managers. This process caused Mary to generate new meanings about her dilemma. It also induced her to widen her own awareness of her own thinking and behaviors. Through the use of the reflexive questions that Bruce raised in his soft and nondirective manner, he was able to gently probe about her dilemma and create gentle perturbations in Mary's thinking about her behavior. This process allowed Mary to reorganize and re-direct her thinking. Bruce's respectful and caring approach enabled Mary to find her own answers and solutions to her situation.