IM FROM IDAHO, I don't know if you know what that means, but it's very hard for a person from Idaho to think of cleaning up the Ganges River. About as far as you can get from cleaning up the Ganges River is Idaho. When an Indian friend asked me to help him clean up the river, I knew I had no experience cleaning up rivers. I knew nothing about sewage. What I did know about was how to build a strategy for social change. It seemed that was what they needed.

    When I first went to India I used strategic questioning. I began by building a series of questions, starting with how they saw the problem themselves. "What do you see when you look at the river ?", " How do you explain the situation with the river to your children ?", or, " How do you feel about the condition of the river ?"

    I listened very carefully to how they explained to themselves what they saw. Essentially I was looking at their logic as well as language. I was looking for the cultural wiring around the river."

    I couldn't say, " Oh, I see the river's polluted." If I said that it would be like my saying in a western context, "Your mother is a whore." In the context of India, it would be a cultural insult, and the Indians would stop listening. It would create a reaction and resistance. So I had to find out how they explained the pollution to themselves.

    Over and over again I heard something like, " ... the river is holy, but she is not pure. We are not taking care of her the way she needs us to."

    The funny thing is that, after hearing this reply, I noticed that I started to personally think less in terms of "pollution" and more in terms of "people not taking care of the river." This was an important change of perspective for me. Pollution is an abstraction that avoids the responsibility of the people who are making the mess - by focusing the attention on the river. It is almost as if the river is to blame for being polluted !

    Very often people also said, "I see the problem, but the others don't." This answer told me a lot about the taboos of the society, and the distance between the people. Such a response told me what they can and can not talk about with each other. Often in a situation such as the holy Ganges, the symbolic overload is so great that to talk about what you really think may seem sacrilegious.

    I needed to understand their "change view" - how they expected change to happen, what kind of strategies they have confidence in. In India, there is no social change that compares to the liberation of their country from the control of the British ... and this effects their views on how change happens.

    When I asked how that change had happened, I got the strategies for change - satyagraha, fasting, direct action, pressuring civic leaders, citizen's assemblies, marches to the capitol - stories of change strategy that are embedded in that culture. These are also the strategies they were willing to use now to clean their holy river.

    I would then ask, "What would you like to do to clean the river?" and they would take their "change view" and apply it to this specific situation.

    For several years the Foundation held a citizen's assembly where officials in change of the Ganga Action Plan came to a large multicolored tent (called a Shamayana) to discuss the progress of the work and plans with members of the Foundation and the citizens. In a public forum the citizens questioned their plans and lack of planning. After the officials gave their presentations citizens stood up at the microphone and gave their own ideas and asked questions. Lobbying was a strategy which went on all the time. We have talked about direct actions and other strategies but were not yet ready for that public campaign yet. It was clear to me that the members of the Foundation had a very precise idea of what to do when the time comes.

    One 13-year old young man suggested that he and his friends would like to "get some sticks and go up and down the river and persuade people not to toilet on the river." I did not evaluate this idea but passed it on even handedly to the Foundation members. They recognized the seeds of a great idea in the one the young man offered.

    Thus the idea of the home guard was born, and for 5 years or so this consisted of a team of adults who walked along the river front of the city, or moved on the river in a boat. They had sticks but no guns. Their task was to discourage citizens from acts disrespectful to the river like toileting, washing with soap, and dumping animal carcasses into the river.

    Before you get too judgmental about this, you need to recognize that most people in India do not have private bathrooms in their homes, and it is hard in a city of over a million to find bare land to bury cows, goats and dogs when they die.

    People often told me how impossible it was to clean the river. I started to think that maybe it was going to take quite a long time and I had better start thinking about the next generation in my questioning. I already was questioning young people but I added a question for the adults which said, " How are you preparing your children to clean up the river ?".

    Everyone in the foundation had been asked that question and to a person they had said something like, " We are doing nothing to prepare the children to clean the river...". Now, their great love of the river, their love for their children, and the void in their answers to that question could not long exist in the same minds. The dissonance was too great.

    One day about a week after that particular round of questioning, we had gone on a trip to Lucknow to see the governor and to check out toilet designs. One afternoon when I was taking a shower and someone came running in and said, "Peavey, come right away, we've got a great idea." I thought, " Gosh, you know, I rarely get summoned from the shower with a great idea." So I quickly dressed and combed my hair and went to find them.

    They were gathered and enthusiastically discussing a plan : "We're going to have a poster painting contest for the children. We'll have all the students in Benares draw posters about what they see regarding the health of the river. And we'll hang the winning posters up at a large musical event. The adults will see what the children see and be embarrassed..."

    It was an original idea. Now, where do you think that idea came from? Clearly the idea was theirs. Everybody in that room had been asked a question about the preparation of their children for river cleaning work. Could that question have had anything to do with the emergence of the idea about the poster contest? I believe it did. I surely didn't come up with that idea, they came up with it. Since it was their idea, they had enthusiasm around it.

    We have had poster contests almost every year where 500-800 young people have gathered on the banks of the Ganges in poster making competitions.

    People need to come up with their own answers. Questioning can catalyses this process. A powerful question has a life of its own as it chisels away at the problem. Don't be disappointed if a great question does not have an answer right away. A very powerful question, a long lever question, may not have an answer at the moment it is asked. It will sit rattling in the mind for days or weeks as the person works on an answer. The seed is planted, the answer will grow. Questions are alive!


    A GROUP IN AUSTRALIA was concerned about a hydroelectric plant which was planned to be built in Ravenshoe, Queensland. In the words of Bryan Law a member of the organizing group ...

    " We made our first step into the public community life of Ravenshoe...We decided that step would be humble, and would consist of listening to the opinions, ideas and feelings of local people (rather than preaching our ideas to them). To do this, we constructed a survey questionnaire, which asked thirty open-ended questions about the Ravenshoe community, and the potential impact of the Tully Millstream project on that community....I found two points of great interest in conducting this survey.

    " First, almost everyone who approached our table wanted to know "which side" we were on. It was almost as if public debate had decreed this is an either/or issue. Our group had agreed earlier on a response to this question, which was that while individual members had their own opinion, the group as a whole was impartial. We didn't want to take a side. We wanted to listen to all sides. It was amazing to see how people opened up after this response, and shared what they thought and felt.

    " I began to see the potential for resolution of this problem. I began to ask myself (and others) the questions: (i) what kind of hydro project could we find consensus support for to build in this district? (escaping the yes/no false dichotomy); (ii)what positive and co-operative steps could we take on other issues and problems in the district?....

    " Second, having said we were impartial it became so. I found personally I could not repeat the formula without making it true. My mind opened up. I lost my previous certainties, and began to really listen for the first time. I found I didn't have all the answers. This was a bit uncomfortable for a while, but gradually I began to recognize it for the truly empowering process it was.

    " We feel it is encourage local residents (and everyone else) not to over-simplify the issues and continue the polarisation. Instead, to recognize the range of insights, opinions, perspectives, and knowledge within the district, and to see this diversity as a potential source of strength. Conflict can generate much creativity if handled the right way...The attitude of the QEC (Queensland Electric Corporation) is that they have proposed a scheme, and it is the best one possible. If it goes ahead they will begin to meet local responsibilities. If it doesn't, they won't. This attitude looks to be the biggest single impediment to a constructive resolution of conflict....

    " The group held a public meeting to discuss the electric plant. About 180 people came and about perhaps 100 of them clapped loud and long at one man's suggestion that we get out of town. Sitting there with these feelings of apparent hatred washing over us in waves was not an experience any of us is keen to repeat.

    " However, there were positive aspects of the night. Many of those other eighty people, who witnessed the attacks on us, and who had until then been suspicious or noncommittal, came down off their fence and began to send messages of active support. About thirty people stayed to help us clean up, and asked us not to give up. They said that what we had done was worthwhile. We received promises of financial and other support.

    " Towards the end of the meeting, a small number of conservative people who are prominent in the community, and who strongly support the dam, were also offering constructive comments on our efforts. I think this represents one of the key dynamics of nonviolence - that when people are attacked for holding principled views, and do not respond in kind but stay constructive, those doing the attacking lose support. Those holding to truth and love gain ... "
    (edited) from Bryan Law in Nonviolence Today #25 March/April 1992


    THE NATURE OF strategic questioning may well uncover upsetting feelings on the part of the person being questioned. Deborah Lubar (*) wrote a moving account of a door to door listening exercise she undertook on the issue of nuclear war. Her task was to find out what people were thinking, rather than trying to convince them of anything. Pad in hand she introduced herself, and asked the following questions :

    " What do you think the greatest problem facing the world is today ?"
    " What do you consider the chances of nuclear war to be ?"
    " What do you think would make our country safe and strong ?"

    She came to a house where a man grudgingly let her in ... and then turned quite hostile. When she asked him about nuclear war he barked, " No, no no, I don't have time for these ridiculous questions." She left stunned by his rudeness.

    A few minutes later, she was coming out of another house. There the man stood with his arms crossed, waiting for her. " What do you expect me to do about it ?", he demanded belligerently. Now she had a problem. She had opened up an issue and it was clear that it was difficult for him to deal with his fear and helplessness.

    He said, " I'm sorry I threw you out of my house, but what do you expect me to do about it ? For God's sake what do you want ?"

    They went for a walk as he pelted her with questions. Finally, he shook her hand and walked away.

    The next day, Deborah followed an impulse and went back to the man's house. She felt a bit like a fool. What excuse could she give for returning? Finally she just went to the door. The man answered, surprised but pleased to see her. He told her that he had had a horrible night, sweating through nightmares about nuclear war.

    He had an emotionally sensitive button, as we all do, that is about control and change. Deborah's questions pushed that button. Immediately he felt his helplessness and his fear of how much he cared. It might sometimes look like apathy, but I think apathy is usually actually a fear of caring too much. The questions that Deborah asked pushed that button and upset emerged from the man.

    They talked of many things until the man realized he was late for work. At the door he took her hands and they looked at each other straight in the eye. Deborah later wrote that, " What we learned of one another that morning, was profoundly intimate and it had only to do with our common bond as two human beings groping in the dark to confront the difficult times we live in ..."

    There is a part of each of us that desires to keep life static. Isn't it peculiar? Don't you wonder why it is that when we're changing we're also the most alive, the most juicy, the most open. But we fear change the most. It's a puzzlement isn't it ?

    (*) Adapted from a story in my book Heart Politics (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1986) pp. 167-168


    SUE AND COLIN LENNOX came to one of my strategic questioning workshops. The following Monday morning they returned to the schools in Sydney, Australia, where they teach. The students were in an uproar about a chemical spill in the creek behind their school. All the fish in the lagoon (which is fed by the creek) were dying. Sue thought, "Here is a chance to practice strategic questioning."

    She taught the children briefly how to do it by asking:

    " What do you see ?"
    " What do you know ?"
    " How do you feel ?"
    " How could it be ?" " How should it be ?"
    " What needs to be changed ?"
    " What should we do ?"
    " What can you do ?"
    " What support do you need ?"

    The students went out to use these strategic questions to question their neighbors, their fellow students and teachers. They also went to the creek and consulted the creek. In doing this they opened their hearts to the pain of the creek. They knew that they had to do something. They came back from their consultations with many perceptions and expressions of concern. From their questioning they had uncovered some good ideas of what to do and what others would be willing to do.

    The students had to determine which ideas fitted their own talents and time, and which seemed to be the best ideas. For the past three years they have been working on testing the water of that creek, talking to the local city council and community, finding the exact nature of the pollution of the creek, making video tapes and teaching other students all over Australia to do the same. All this was catalyzed by the strategic questioning process.


    A COUPLE OF WEEKS after attending a strategic questioning workshop in Auckland, New Zealand, a woman saw a television show about violence to women. The show did not adequately condemn such violence and it carried a commercial which she thought was also anti-women.

    The women's community in Auckland was upset about this show and the commercial. They put out the message that women should call the manager of the station and give him a piece of their mind. This particular woman decided to see what would happen if she tried strategic questioning. She called the manager but instead of lecturing him about what she thought, she started off with some questions.

    " How does a show get on the air ?"
    " What review policies do you have about combining commercials and the content of your shows ?"
    " How could the women's community work with the television station to create better programming around this issue ?"

    Notice here the "How could.." nature of the question. If she had phrased the question, "Is there a way we could work together ..." she might have received the answer "No, there is no way." This is a good example of why you should avoid questions that set up a "Yes" or "No" answer.

    Finally the manager said, " Say, you seem to be quite knowledgeable about this matter. Would you like to be on the advisory board that screens each show and commercial and decides what should go on the air ?"

    No one else who had called with their opinion was invited into this powerful board. Her questioning opened doors to co-operation and common ground.

  • NEXT : Credits

    To SQ Directory

    The url for this page is