Power: Questions and Stories

By Jim Huegerich, Senior Ombuds, Town of Chapel Hill

We all possess power in two key areas: questions and stories.

Questions are often asked to confirm an assumption, to challenge, or to convince. Imagine if we asked questions to truly learn about one another, particularly about those with whom we disagree or those very different from us? Questions, and the ways in which they are asked, have the potential to transform our interactions and inform how we approach, view, and engage people — particularly those with whom we deeply disagree. Through genuine curiosity we can learn to harness the power of questions to invite understanding and make connections between the asked and the asker. We can learn to:

  • discover questions that bridge the gap between differences and help us better understand the situation from differing perspectives
  • craft questions in a way that genuinely invites others to respond and elicits fresh, productive responses, particularly in stuck or divided conversations
  • avoid questions that close down a conversation during disagreement
  • foster awareness of the effects of questions on our perceptions, emotions, and relationships
  • create space for people to be real and to own their feelings in fresh ways that help them relate to themselves and others, surfacing possibilities unimagined by people stuck in disagreement

Stories are important for relationships. We all have a story to tell. The power of story connects us as real people, valued for who we are and where we are in life. Unfortunately, we often feel like we know others — what their stories are, and why they do what they do.  Or even worse, we do not care to know their stories. The challenge is to be willing to create the safety and the opportunity to elicit, then listen to, the story of another person. Allowing others to tell their stories is a gift we give to them.

What stories about ourselves do we hold most dear? What stories do we tell about others, and how do those stories take shape? We make sense of and navigate the world through stories. But stories — particularly the ones we tell about other people — can sometimes deepen the rifts that come between us, creating a feared other — a “Them.” The power of stories moves us beyond stereotypes and fear, bringing “Us” and “Them” into relationship of “We” through understanding.

Ombuds are ideally positioned within an organization to both hear the stories of others and to empower them to ask important questions at the right time and in the proper places. This enables them to feel like important members of their teams and to tell their stories in ways that are most likely to be heard, the result of both being healthier people and a healthier organization. No matter who we are or the role we serve within our organization, we all possess the powers of questions and stories. Begin to exercise those powers with those with whom you work each day. Such power is power shared, giving the same to others – the power of questions and the power of stories.

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