The Art of Asking Questions

I recently attended a remote one-hour workshop on Facilitated Dialogue led by Rachel Viscomi from the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program. One piece of guidance she shared was that when facilitating dialogue among a group of people it’s important to slow things down. One way to slow things down and enhance understanding is to ask more questions. And then she shared a slide with this heading on it:

“Keep Calm and Ask More Questions”

            This piece of wisdom can be used in many circumstances and conversations, not just in facilitated dialogue. When we are involved in mediation work with churches it is imperative that we ask many questions. When we are assisting/coaching clergy in understanding Bowen Family Systems Theory and they share about their family of origin, we use questions as a tool for them to explain the patterns of behaving/functioning that they developed as they grew up. And as they share, we ask more questions that may lead them to see the bigger picture of their family’s (parents, grandparents, ancestors) challenges and strengths.

            As I was participating in Clergy Clinic in Family Emotional Process led by Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, I recognized that my relationship with my father was emotionally distant. Yet, I didn’t know how to go about bridging some of that distance. I started to understand that some of this distance was simply because I did not know my father very well. It was then that I explored the idea of interviewing my dad to get to know him better. But interviews involve questions. And what questions would I even know to ask my father?

Fortunately, a friend suggested I use Grandpa, Tell Me Your Memories which is a resource that provides hundreds of questions to ask and can easily be used for interviewing other people than just your grandfather.

            And it worked! Conducting an interview with my dad helped to bridge some of the distance that had existed between him and me. Since that interview, I have been able to ask my dad more and more questions which has helped our relationship deepen.

            When facilitating mediation with churches we often will introduce our time by reading a passage from Philippians 2, focusing on verse 4, “Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.” And a primary way we look to the interests of others is by asking them questions. We become curious and allow open-ended questions to deepen our understanding of one another.

            I think of Jesus who was a master at asking questions. In the book Jesus is the Question, the author Martin Copenhaver shares this fascinating detail of Jesus’ ministry: “According to the Gospels, Jesus asks 307 different questions, is asked only 183 questions, and answers fewer than 10 of those he is asked.” Jesus’ use of questions helped to deepen relationships, disarm tensions, and help people define themselves better.

Going into the holiday season, maybe this phrase “Keep Calm and Ask More Questions” could be a way for us to deepen our relationships with family and friends as we gather. It’s another tool in our peacemaker toolkit. We just have to remember to use it. Holiday Blessings,

–Tammy Martens

The Fierce Art of Peacemaking: Part 1

A few years ago, my daughter gave me a book of poetry called Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. The book was written by Joy Harjo, who at that time was Poet Laureate of the United States. The book includes a poem called “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings.”

Harjo is a tribal member of the Muskogee Creek Nation located in present-day Oklahoma. The poem, as I read it, is a ironical account of historical negotiations between Indigenous communities in North America and the United States government.

I have read that poem repeatedly in the past several years. One line sticks out to me that I keep coming back to in my work at the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. It reads,

We will wind up back at the blues standing on the edge of

the flatted fifth about to jump into a fierce understanding


I am not a musician by any stretch of the imagination; I can’t keep a beat worth a hoot. So I have relied on others to help me come to a fuller understanding of this line.

In other sections of the poem, Harjo lifts out the way in which Indigenous communities practiced what negotiators of European background would have considered flawless conflict resolution skills, only to have these practices turn around and bite them.

Earlier in her poem she writes:

I could hear the

spirits who love us stomp dancing. They were dancing as

if they were here, and then another level of here, and then

another, until the whole earth and sky was dancing.

We are dancing, they said. There was no there.

I see Harjo’s poem as attempting to turn the tables on good conflict resolution skills. Rather than following simple formulas, she is suggesting that dealing with conflict is an art form that is similar to dancers negotiating dance moves with a partner or jazz musicians rifting their way through a difficult piece on their guitars without the help of any sheet music.

Evidence that this is what Harjo has in mind is found in her line,

You cannot legislate music to lockstep nor can you legislate

the spirit of music to stop at political boundaries—

—Or poetry, or art, or anything else that matters in

this world, and the next worlds.

I often read this section of Harjo’s poem when I lead a Conflict Transformation Skills workshop. After reading it in one session, someone with way more musical background than myself mentioned that the “flatted fifth” that Harjo mentions is a dissonant chord. In other words, it is filled with tension and begs to be resolved. How the dissonant chord is resolved and brought back into harmony in music is beyond my pay scale. However, in conflict, as Harjo suggests, being at peace with someone I may not see eye-to-eye with involves coming to a “fierce understanding of each other.”

-To be continued

Devon Miller

Using Structured Process as a Support in Times of Change

Last week Tammy Martens wrote about the use of family diagrams as a tool for analyzing family emotional systems, “for observing the family as it adapts to life”. There is what David Ford called “multiple overwhelmings” (The Shape of Living) in life today that impact family and congregational life from the outside. These are events that happen, often more than one at time, over which we have no control. These events, like conflict, are a normal part of life. How we deal with these events, sense the movement of the Spirit through them and make meaning of them in our lives is where theology can guide us. Having a structured process to support that thinking when under stress is beneficial.

Peter Steinke points out that no generation has had to face greater and more prolonged change than the present one (Healthy Congregations). The Visual Capitalist has wonderful graphic representations of the speed of change (Long Waves: The History of Innovation Cycles – Visual Capitalist and Chart: The Rising Speed of Technological Adoption (, illustrating why our absorption capacity is full. The result is we as individuals, organizations, and society, are engaging in trauma responses:  cutting off relationships, numbing, acting out, blaming, getting tired and depressed, and having a reduced capacity for positive emotions like trust and love.

One of the basic structures in our society is the family unit. It serves as an organizational and value-shaping entity for us, positively or negatively. Author Joshua Coleman identified a fundamental change in the function of the family itself starting in the 1960s, shifting from what was “once seen as a bond of mutual duty and obligation, and now its seen as a launchpad for personal fulfillment.” (Rules of Estrangement). This changed the idea of right relationship and its associated values from ones focused around responsibility to others (often defined by faith) and re-centered on care for the self, first (faith optional). One of the challenges for addressing multiple overwhelmings today is the very structures that we relied on to frame our experiences have shifted.

How can one sense where the Spirit is moving when our senses are dulled and overwhelmed? The gurus of the 1960s were not wrong in placing value on self-knowledge. We cannot help others if we ourselves are hurting. We do need to take time for connecting with our values. But ultimately, we also need to come together again. Families, traditional and modern, can root for the individual growth of their members. Congregations can find new direction in-line with changing realities. Societies can discuss what’s working and what’s not via their governments and shift their policies. 

The Lombard Mennonite Peace Center offers structured processes and expert facilitators to help fractured groups work through change, difference, and trauma. Having a system to follow can help mitigate anxiety knowing a tested system will encompass all concerns and hold places for naming, grieving, healing, and dreaming again. It can take time to discern the right path but reconnecting with ourselves will help with future engagement. Being able to lead with an informed response developed from self-examination rather than inflamed raw reaction is the key.

Dorren Gertsen-Briand