Asking Questions From A Caring Perspective

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Community of Practice, Customer Development, skmurphy

I used to think it was the advice I offered that provided the highest value to clients and friends. I talk to a number of people in different or challenging situations. Recently I have come to appreciate that it’s when I focus and listen to someone explain their situation, asking them questions from a caring perspective to help clarify their understanding, that I often provide the most value.

The Spaniel Method for Self-Recovery From a Dilemma

“The question to everyone’s answer is usually asked from within.”
Steve Miller

In a paper published in ACM SIGPLAN in December 1998 “Literate Programming and the ‘Spaniel’ Method” by Nick Hatzigeorgiu and Apostolos Syropoulos relate the following advice on “The Spaniel Method” a professor offered Apostolos Syropoulos in response to a request for help debugging a seemingly intractable problem in a program that he was working on:

“As is often the case with baffling errors it is really quite simple. We tend to fixate on incorrect assumptions, and overlook the obvious, surprisingly frequently. I have found that one way to break through such barriers is to use the ‘Spaniel’ method: Carefully explain the program to your dog. Since the dog knows nothing of programming, you must justify every statement you make. In the process you will often discover the mistake.”
W. W. Waite

I think it’s the attentive uncritical acceptance that a dog offers it’s owner, attentively listening, that untangles the internal network of interlocking assumptions and options. Depending upon how you naturally express yourself it may also help to write things down or sketch a diagram or picture of the situation to aid your exploration.

Bill-Gracey-Neon-SmokeTwo Hours of Clarity:
Questions For Your Answers

Which reminds me of the Quaker Clearness Committee model that can be requested by any member of the congregation. A clearness committee’s job is to help the focus person discover whether there is clarity to move forward with a matter, wait, or take other action.

“In advance of the meeting, the focus person should write up the matter on which clearness is sought and make it available to committee members. This should be identified as precisely as possible: relevant background factors should be mentioned; and clues, if any, about what lies ahead should be offered. The exercise is valuable not only for the committee members, but especially for the focus person.”
Clearness Committees and Their Use in Personal Discernment By Jan Hoffman

Members are required to take the following actions:

  • Deep listening to the questions & concerns brought to the committee
  • Careful, gentle open-ended questions from clearness committee members
  • Reflecting back what has been heard

A Model for Our Office Hours and Mastermind Groups

My friend John Smith of Learning Alliances told me about the Quaker Clearness Committee model a number of years ago. I have tried to incorporate it into our Office Hours and Mastermind Groups, asking folks to write down issues in advance and asking questions before jumping in to giving advice. It’s also useful when I moderate Bootstrapper Breakfasts in Silicon Valley.

Clearness Committee Guidelines

Photo Credit: Bill Gracey Neon Smoke.

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Comments (7)

  • SKMurphy, Inc. Service Factory Conversation with Bruce La Fetra

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    […] The Quakers have a process that they call a clearness committee where you ask for help on a particular issue that’s troubling you and the people on the committee can only ask you questions to help clarify. They don’t tell you what to do, they help you to get clear in your own mind on the decision. The first step in that process is you have to write down a summary of your situation from your perspective, maybe options you’re considering, so that you can set the table. […]

    Reply

  • Gina Bianchini

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    Sean,

    I enjoyed this post. What’s cool about it is this pattern of listening deeply, asking clarifying questions and seeking to share experiences, not advice is that not only do the Friends use it, but organizations like YPO, AA and others have very similar models.

    We used these same principles for creating the outline of Lean In Circles (www.leanin.com/circles).

    Thanks for sharing and I’m enjoying your blog.

    Reply

  • Building a Service Factory: Interview with Sean Murphy | Looking Up

    |

    […] The Quakers have a process that they call a clearness committee where you ask for help on a particular issue that’s troubling you and the people on the committee can only ask you questions to help clarify. They don’t tell you what to do, they help you to get clear in your own mind on the decision. The first step in that process is you have to write down a summary of your situation from your perspective, maybe options you’re considering, so that you can set the table. […]

    Reply

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