By Major Matt Cavanaugh
Back in February, I agreed to write a two-part essay for another website – the first part was published – the second was sort of left floundering. I’d actually forgotten that I’d written something until the other day I came across a neat article about the group Ask Big Questions. It’s an educational/cultural initiative that grew out of Rabbi Josh Fiegelson’s experience with Northwestern University students. In trying to get them to talk, constructively, about violence in the Middle East – he stumbled onto an important insight. The more broadly one elevates the question at hand – the discussion can subtly become more constructive. Here’s how:
“Feigelson established guidelines for the discussion: Everyone was to speak only in the first person; listen to understand, not to judge; keep things confidential; and avoid rushing in to fill the silence. The question was straightforward: “How are you feeling?”
It led to a genuine exchange, rather than a debate about what had happened and who was to blame. Students actually listened to one another. “And they were able to register their complex emotions about the situation,” said Feigelson.
A big part of the problem with public discourse, contends Feigelson, is that we often begin by asking hard questions before we have explored big questions. A “hard question,” he says, is one that requires special knowledge to answer — so only some people feel they can answer it — and it bears fruit only if the participants in the discussion already share a degree of trust or rapport.
A “big question,” by contrast, is one that matters to everyone and that everyone can answer. Big questions have the potential to tap people’s sense of curiosity and to draw out wisdom from the heart.”