Shakti Butler

Strategic Questioning

By: Lauren Alexander

The Strategic Questioning breakout session led by conference emcee Shakti Butler aimed to demonstrate how framing questions and conversations differently can empower new questions, release blocks to fresh ideas, facilitate people’s own responses to change, and create answers that may not be immediately known. The session, which drew extensively from the article, “Strategic Questioning for Social Justice,” by Fran Peavy, demonstrated how strategic questioning opens both parties to a new point of view, allows ideas to shift and take into account new information and possibilities.

 Butler began by unpacking the idea of passive versus active communication using “school” as an analogy. In school, we are taught that getting the right answer first is the way to demonstrate worthiness as students. Peavy calls this “static communication” and argues this type of communication can be deeply passive. Instead, Butler urged participants to create an “undulating ocean of exchange,” whereby both parties give and receive information. However, she acknowledges that getting to this point can be difficult because we don’t know how to cross the chasm that we so often face in conversation.

 To explore further his idea of strategic questioning, Butler urged participants to get into groups of three and think of some of their own central questions that brought them to this conference.  Some of the questions offered by participants included: How do we move forward with anti-racism work in an environment that represses it?; How can Black women and nurturers build bridges without becoming the bridge that is trot upon?; Why should I see reaching out to another community as abandoning my own?

In each of the groups one person presented their question while a second individual served as the respondent who questioned the first in an attempt to gain a fuller understanding of what was being asked. The third person in the group observed and helped provide insight once the conversation was over.

After each round, each individual was asked to reflect on how the role they just played was like for them, guided by questions from Butler, including:

  •  “When you were the one asking questions, who found that their question shifted?”
  • “Who got new ideas from listening?”

  • “When you were observer, how many people wanted to jump in?

 Butler discussed how this approach to communication has the potential to move people’s opinions and how critical it is to think about one’s audience—they should be engaged in a way that doesn’t exhaust them.

 Following this discussion, Butler briefly reviewed types of questions. She broke them down into first level questions—framing questions, observation questions, and analysis questions—and second level questions. Second level questions include visioning questions—how would you know whether your work is successful, as well as change questions, which focus on strategy to achieving that vision.

 The ultimately takeaway of this workshop was that people can be empowered when they have the chance to think out loud you and try out new ideas—and in the process that person can take ownership and gain confidence. An authentic conversation can open new avenues and create opportunities for change for everyone involved.


photo by Eric Arnold, see more photos on our Facebook page.