I was talking with a friend a few weeks ago about tone, specifically with regard to the people we enjoy following on social media. One thing I realized was that I tend to gravitate towards people who live in the interrogative. There are four types of sentences — exclamatory, declarative, imperative, and interrogative — and I find myself circumspect around people who consistently speak in commands (“do this,” “don’t do that”), even when I know it is a schtick — and drawn to the people asking questions. Awhile ago, I read something that said: “Authentic people change their minds.” I’ve been reflecting on that for a long time. At first, it didn’t sit right. Aren’t authentic people the types who live with conviction and consistency? Who do not waver, falter, or shapeshift? On closer inspection, though, I observed that some of the most earnest, “real” people I know are the ones who surprise me with a change of heart, or admit to wayfinding: “At first I thought this, but then I listened and realized this.”
In my 20s, I had the opportunity to work with the renowned design firm IDEO, champions of the “human-centered design” philosophy, which is a creative approach to problem-solving. They follow a carefully crafted set of steps in which they listen and ask questions first, before postulating what the solution might be. (They then fashion lightweight prototypes they can test and iterate upon, but I’m mainly focused on the initial phases of the process today.) This probably sounds suspiciously vague or obvious, but you would be surprised how often we jump to conclusions when seeking answers, and often for valid reasons. For example, later in my life, I would try to convince a private foundation to pay IDEO to help with a very specific problem one of its grantees was facing. More narrowly, one non-profit had stepped up to coordinate emergency housing for survivors of domestic violence across a few different shelters, and there was a consistent issue in accurately reporting how many beds were available across those dwellings, which led to inefficiencies at best and accidental “there’s no room at the inn’s” at worst. There was no one place for each non-profit to share how many beds were occupied, and it was difficult to keep this data up to date given how much fluidity and change there was day-to-day with women coming and going — plus, there were serious issues with privacy and security to contend with. I had tried (with help from others) to put together a proposal in which IDEO would complete its human centered design process to propose a solution, but the foundation was leery. “But what’s the deliverable?” they insisted, validly. Our response was an unsatisfying, but honest: “We don’t know yet. It could be a technology, or a spreadsheet, or a hotline, or a staff member, or something else — we just don’t know the answer until we’ve fully interviewed the stakeholders and thought through the unique challenges of implementation. That’s the objective of this engagement. To listen, observe the inputs, and decide the best way to solve this without, for example, sinking a ton of money into a custom tech solution that may not be feasible, that people won’t have the time or training to update, etc.” The project ended up stalling, and I was frustrated, but I also completely empathized with the funders. It is scary and risky to put up money when you don’t have a sense for the shape of its deliverable. And there are ethical stakes, too, in this case, when the requested money could otherwise go to causes we know are needed and that we have ways of measuring in terms of outcome, for example, food for the hungry, or therapy for victims, or bedding for homeless.
Still, I remain a profound believer in the IDEO way, and in the sanctity of asking open-ended questions first, firmly allaying pre-drawn conclusions. These professional and philanthropic design experiences have shaped me profoundly, and I find the IDEO ethos has colored even my tone in writing and my reaction to the voices of others. One of the hallmarks of the IDEO methodology is converting nearly any question into a “how might we…?” It is such a subtle manipulation of grammar, but wildly powerful and generative. You may find it helpful to try next time you’re stuck, or in a brainstorm at work, or even hoping to subtly shake up a conversation that is heading in a questionable direction. For example, instead of, “Why was this deliverable so late?”, we might ask: “How might we change the process so that we can deliver this on time next go around?” Or, instead of a declarative, like, “We need to stop letting the kids watch so much TV,” it becomes, “How might we get the kids to spend more time doing screen-free activities?” Do you feel the internal shift? The transition from a knee-jerk defense to an open stance? Do you sense the way in which your gaze shifts from narrow and furrowed to wide lens?
The next time you feel stuck or frustrated at work, in parenting, in a relationship, in a creative undertaking, you might find it helpful to reframe as: “How might we…?”
+What was the first movie or book that made a deep impression on you as a child?
+Madewell is offering 30% off sitewide (let the Memorial Day shopping begin!). Love these striped shorts and button-down sets. Button-downs would be a good buy for nursing mamas — so chic with white jeans or leggings. Also love this gingham suit.
+Love the colors of these trail running sneakers.
+A really cute white dress for $128.
+Cute simple sandals for kids — love that these could be dressed up or down.
+Two great H&M finds: this blue eyelet floral and this red and white striped halter.
+If your little one complains about having water in his/her goggles and/or you can’t find a good fitting pair, try this set from Italy. Have heard they’re very effective and easy for kids to use!
+Adore this striped linen dress.
+How FUN is this children’s air mattress in the shape of a convertible?! Summer sleepover inspo!
+Love the look of these tailored linen shorts.
+Cute cover-up caftan at a great price.
+Cute a-line skirt from Target. Love in the crisp white!
+Drawn to the colorblocking on these toddler sneakers.
+Mr. Magpie just ordered this new coffee grinder. He’d been using a manual one for awhile and it was basically giving him carpal tunnel’s — ha!