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Asking Questions That Connect Us and Bring Us Alive

"Simply altering the way in which you frame a situation and the questions you ask will change any interaction and the outcome."

Cheri Torres co-author, Conversations Worth Having; Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement

John and I meet weekly via zoom with a group of five other people we call our “compassion circle.” We come together to stay on track. Toward what?

Toward becoming lots of good stuff, generally better people - more engaged, more connected to others, more caring and kind (to ourselves and others), more helpful, more creative, more joyful, more present, more mindful, better listeners, more courageous, more generous, having more humility, more self-control, being more purposeful, more grateful, more hopeful, more loving, more understanding and accepting (of others and ourselves), more curious, more resilient, more authentic, more capable - stronger, wiser, more emotionally stable, less judgmental, more able to embrace the full human experience (and knowing full well the difficulty and wild audacity involved with journeying toward all these high flying ideals).

We call the whole kit and caboodle, following the way of compassion or "the compassion practice." (If you would like to start you own circle, look on our resource pages).

The main questions we discuss together in our circle are these: where have you seen compassion, where have you given compassion, where have you received compassion, where have you struggled with compassion, what insights have you had around practicing compassion, what questions are coming up for you around compassion. We share our stories which further flush out these questions.

Questions (and stories…which I will discuss in a later blog) can be powerful. We use them in many ways. Certain types of questions particularly interest me these days.

First, I am interested in questions that direct attention, reflection, open possibilities, and give us learning and life..."appreciative" questions. Second, I am drawn to questions that have the potential for connecting us.

Appreciative inquiry is a field which directs attention toward strengths and the positive core of human beings, families, and organizations. The questions open us to discovering or remembering what is good and strong in us. The questions uncover and bring out the best in us. Appreciative questions shift us from problem talk to possibility talk from blaming to inspiring.

For example, here is an appreciative question, “When was a time you felt you make a meaningful impact on the life of another person?” Or the question might take the form of a story like, “Tell a story about a time you felt you made a meaningful impact on another person.” Both are appreciative approaches to discovering and building on the best in us.

Our compassion questions are largely appreciative. They direct us to look for the good, for compassion, to become more curious, and inspire us to grow in our compassion practice.

This week we added a new question. A powerful question. A question which gets at our positive core and energizes us. When we ask this question to another person, it opens a door for a positive connection.

Here’s the question. “What made you smile today?” Or "What made you smile recently?

What does this question do? It moves us away from being scared, angry, worried. It activates the relaxation response. We find out something interesting, fun, maybe uplifting. We have an opportunity to see, hear, and value each other - to positively connect.

In our compassion circle, one person shared about taking time to listen to a neighbor for over an hour. The conversation was conducted over a fence. The neighbor had recently lost a spouse. Upon reflection, the opportunity to connect was a cause for a smile.

Another person reflected on noticing how a young niece was delighting in hearing family stories and seeing pictures. It made her smile.

We shared stories about kids who could breathe because the smoke had lifted for a bit, seeing humorous signs, doing a good deed. They all made us smile.

This what-made-you-smile-today question has a back story. A psychiatrist picked it up from a father who hated talking to his drug-addicted daughter.

Each time the daughter called it was a downer for the father. The call was a litany of complaints, filled with manipulative ploys for money. The father wanted to turn that around.

Each day at 5:00, the father texted his daughter, “What made you smile today?” He kept this up for 6 weeks. Eventually, the daughter replied, “If you must know what made me smile today, it was knowing that I’d get this text from you.”

Long story short. The father and daughter started sharing what made them smile. They started really connecting. They began liking each other.

The father believes that sharing this what-made-you-smile-today question and positively connecting was ultimately what led the girl to getting off drugs. Their joint attention was on what was going well. It was a question that brought life to both.

The psychiatrist, Mark Goulson, who is also a consultant and well-known negotiator, started a foundation solely based on what-made-you-smile-today (WMYST). Goulson coaches people on how to use the question to connect with others, particularly strangers.

State your name. Ask their name. Make sure they aren’t too busy. Say, “May I ask you a question?” If they are up for it ask, “What made you smile today?”

This week my husband and I have been experimenting with the question. We’ve made new friends, found out more about old friends, received videos, and pictures. Laughed more than we’ve laughed in a long time.

Our compassion circle has taken on the mission to go experiment connecting with others using the WMYST question. It's a good thing to do these days. We will come back together next Tuesday with our stories along with our regular compassion stories.

One person insisted on telling me what was making her crazy before telling me what made her smile. I can understand that. Another said that nothing had made him smile, but quickly changed that to, "meeting you. Meeting you today has made me smile."

Appreciative questions don't deny our challenging situations. Of course, we want to share our crap and receive validation, but we can get stuck there. That's when we want to remember the power of appreciative questions to direct us out of the muck toward our strengths, what's good and going well, and what gives us life.

You may want to experiment with appreciative questions as well…maybe even the WMYST question. I would love to hear what happens.

How might we journey together to The Good Life asking each other appreciative, life-giving questions – like what made you smile today?


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