Tell Your Story, Ask a Question

Look out there, at the bookshelves stacked with volumes concerning conversation, mediation, discussion, dialogue. You can find endless methodologies, models, and structures to learn and implement in your work, family, and personal life. But where do you start?

For a while now,  for myself, I’ve tried to boil down basic conversation and listening skills (what I call “clarity skills”) to a simple enough core that anyone can immediately use them. I want them to work for everyone, and I think to do so, we must design this core as a container that inspires the kind of behavior we want, rather than asking the players to go study up on conversation techniques. Much like a game of tag – sure, practice will deepen your satisfaction of play, but the game works, as it stands, without needing better players. And the rules naturally create the kind of play (behavior) that we want – running and giggling, in this case.

At, a forum I’ve helped moderate for a couple of years now (two years this Spring), we’ve used a discussion guideline to protect members and keep conversations satisfying.

The guideline goes:  Tell Your Story, Ask a Question, and Interpret Generously.

For the most part I have found that this suffices for guiding almost all conversations. Many of us participating at have noted the unusual air of congeniality there. I believe it stems not from the innate virtue of the people attracted to, but from simple, clear ground-rules laid down from almost the beginning. The “your” in Tell Your Story really matters, and it seems work on its own. To further explain it, if you begin to tell how someone else feels, or what they think, or to give advice, you have definitely begun telling their story, not yours. And likely they will disagree with you.

I made the ground-rules so simple because I knew the Internet complicates and obscures communication excellently. Blame anonymity, blame a lack of non-verbal cues, but we all experience it whenever we surf.

After a couple years of watching the guidelines do their magic, I now feel confident enough to recommend them to other forums and formats. In fact, I believe they suffice as a way to begin to learn to talk to each other in gatherings of all kinds.

An even simpler version of these rules exist (yes, color me shocked!). Steven List describes the ‘Circle of Questions’ at his blog. Please note in the comments some enlightening additions my mother Diana (who I interviewed in a podcast not so long ago) made.

I’ve noticed that most groups of modern people cannot handle even the apparent simplicity of a talking circle. I say apparent, because I see a talking circle as a far more complex group process than it appears at first glance, challenging and working participants on many levels. I see this often overwhelm participants (especially as talking circles grow beyond a dozen or so participants). If you just want to teach group listening skills, I’ve seen them work great to that end. If you want to address an issue, or achieve a different kind of group goal, you need a more focused process tool.

For myself, generally speaking, I like to pick one small ‘edge’ to work on at a time, one area where I know participants will have a hill to climb and may do some huffing and puffing before they get to the top, but they won’t arrive exhausted. If you have a similar value guiding your decisions, then I encourage you to start simple with something like the Circle of Questions.

In further discussing this with Diana, I see some things to add. Apparently, beyond a dozen or so people, the Circle of Questions begins to lose effectiveness. Also, keep in mind the rhythm, set by the facilitator of the circle: they tell the first story, then ask the first question of the person next to them, and then step out of the circle as this wave of ‘first story, then question’ ripples around the circle two times, taking its own time. In this way the Circle of Questions encourages openness and teaches curiosity as you first tell your story, and then ask a question.

Check out Diana’s book (with coauthor Esther Derby), Agile Retrospectives, for more process that focus group discussion and decision making in a productive way.

Written by Willem