Enriching Narratives

Sarah Cobb

Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: So what is a circular question? What does that mean? How do I use that?

A: Working from a discourse or narrative perspective everything hinges on how you orient people to the question or to the story that they are telling. If you ask them to tell a story they are going to tell a pancake story or a conflict story. They are going to embellish it a little bit and it's probably going to be even more polarized. They love it and they've told it a billion times. It's like a cross-country ski track that a hundred people have been down. I mean it's got these good groves in it and you can just roll right along. To get them to break out of that story that they've told and retold requires some interruption in the plot, characters or themes. And if you challenge people on the coherence of the narrative they are simply going to get totally furious with you. It's not a polite thing to do. It's a rather dangerous thing to do as a facilitator. Inviting them into the alteration or the process of the evolution of the narrative through a circular question or any kind of good question will provide the basis of the legitimacy of the speaker. That's what constitutes a good question. Embedded in the question is the positive connotation to that person that the facilitator is speaking with. So it is essentially, it's an invitation. 99.9% of the time people who are presented with a question on which their legitimacy is premised they will answer the question. It is in fact not a challenge to the sense of their value and worth. Questions are all important because they are the way in which the dominant narrative is disrupted or destabilized and people don't tolerate destabilization. The narrative doesn't tolerate destabilization unless you provide this foundation of positive connotation built into the question. So that is why appreciative inquiry is so effective. Appreciative inquiry does not destabilize narrative except in the direction that is already providing legitimacy for the person you are talking to.

There are two kinds of circular questions. There are the kinds that compare temporal conditions and there are circular questions that compare traits and characteristics of people. A temporal question might look like you are really in a horrible situation with this person and it looks like you've been doing everything you can to get out of it-is this worse or better than the kinds of struggles that you've had at other times? Or you could ask have you ever had a time where you've struggled so difficultly with people where the struggle has been so painful and so hard? People say, "No, this is worse," or "Yeah, this is just like the one I had three years ago with so and so." You can have a conversation about how they managed to survive the struggle and how did they get through it. This opens the door for the possibility of framing the previous conflict as something that is survivable and if they didn't have anything like that before, well then there is certainly a new groundbreaking learning being challenged. There are all kinds of positive things about that.

The circular question that asks for comparison on traits would be something like, "Of all the people involved in this conflict who do you think is the most anxious about it's outcome?" People will never say themselves. Never. They won't say I'm the most anxious because none of us want to portray ourselves as the most vulnerable. If you ask the question who is the most vulnerable in this conflict they will say oh this other guy because he is all screwed up. That is what makes him so vulnerable because he is terrible, but me, I'm all right. But framing other people who are vulnerable and anxious is very different than framing them as creepy. It reduces the hegemonic rigidity or the power of a dominant narrative for the speaker. If he asks us questions in front of other people, in front of the hated other, then all heck starts to break lose in a very good way. Circular questions yield something called relational knowledge, it's knowledge not just about what I think, it's knowledge in front of you about what I think. It gives you knowledge about our relationship as I am answering the question about us. So people come to the edge of their chairs and you can usually hear a pin drop when you ask circular questions focused on traits or characteristics. They are very powerful questions.

Q: I don't quite understand while they are called circular questions.

A: Well they are circular because usually they are comparing. The information is actually feeding back. Think of the feedback loops. You are asking me the question but it is ricocheting over to have implications for the other person in the room. So it creates a circle of relational information between the interviewer, the questioner, and the people who populate the traits and characteristics of the question. I think for the temporal sequence of circular questions they are circling from one time back to the present and back again. It's a circle of information between the interviewer and the interviewee.