Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Open-minded Questions and Empathy

Photo credit: InnerOuterPeace

Some of my most satisfying thoughts have come from misinterpreting the written or spoken word. (And, admittedly, many have not.) One recent misreading has led me through a satisfying reflection.

I have been struggling to write a blog post about caring, compassion, and empathy in museums. Museums have both a responsibility to their community to exhibit empathy and compassion and a range of opportunities to tap into care and compassion among visitors, staff, volunteers, partners, and the community. How might museums foster a kinder society? Create the conditions to encourage kindness, caring and compassion? Help raise moral children?

Others have taken on this complex topic in thoughtful blog posts and articles. Gretchen Jennings has written about the Empathetic Museum here. Rebecca Herz has explored how museums can foster empathy in Museum Questions. The Empathy Museum is an “experiential arts space dedicated to helping us all look at the world through other people’s eyes” that travels internationally. The Opal School at Portland Children’s Museum has worked on defining what the school means by empathy.

With these and more provocations to consider, I’ve asked myself, what useful perspective I might bring to this topic. Uncertain, I have put away a working draft for awhile. That is, until a few days ago when I enjoyed a moment of creative misreading.

I misread a column heading in a museum publication, as “They are asking open-minded questions.” In fact it said, “They are asking open-ended questions.” The second and actual version explored the results of a study. The first, and more intriguing, launched me into thinking about what “open-minded questions” might be and what they might contribute to museums cultivating caring, compassion, and empathy.

Open to the Possible
Questions are powerful tools for exploring, thinking, and learning. This is certainly true for open-ended and open-minded questions. Both help us stay in curiosity. Questions rather than conclusions, assertions, or statements engage interest, fire up thinking, solve problems, and invite creativity. Open-endedness taps into what someone knows, encourages thinking, and yields more information. The open questions we are familiar with invite possible answers rather than brief yes or no responses.

In spite of the overlap between both types of questions, they differ in where they lead. For instance, while concerned with thinking, open-minded questions help us imagine other ways of thinking, feeling, believing, or connecting that are generally not typical of open-ended questions. Here lies the source of their capacity to cultivate empathy, caring, kindness, and compassion, to make room for acceptance and inclusion.

Open-minded questions create openings for connecting with others. When we ask an open-minded question, we are exhibiting an interest in the other person, a curiosity about their perspective, a willingness to hear their ideas. When someone asks us an open-minded question, we sense their readiness to recognize who we are and connect with us.

As much as open-minded questions lend themselves to conversation and listening, they do so in a way that invites us to push further, listen harder, and dig more deeply. They signal a willingness to move us beyond well-known assumptions and conclusions that can limit listening and conversation. In facing new directions we can find ourselves in challenging territory yet responsive to possibilities and giving fair consideration of the unfamiliar.

Open-minded questions help us understand others and ourselves better. In posing an open-minded question, we can imagine ourselves in the other person’s situation, expose ourselves to the possibility she might have a better idea, or consider revisiting cherished ideas.

We may be called to caring and compassion as our open-minded questions convey concern about someone’s well-being. We may set in motion a call to action, to reach out and respond to another person and their hopes and needs. Open-minded questions invite the change we both seek and fear

Cultivating Compassion
In interactions across, within, and beyond the museum, open-minded questions help nurture compassion, empathy, tolerance, and connection. Our open-minded questions can open us to listening to co-workers more intentionally, suspending our certainty, and strengthening our interconnections. With partners, open-minded questions can convey a genuine interest in another’s perspective, in their well-being, and in their experience that challenges the museum’s view. In interacting with visitors and learners in the museum’s exhibitions and programs, open-minded questions help shift from a focus on the museum’s interests to the visitor’s, and from the obvious to the unknown.

Everyday and everywhere individual's open-minded questions help grow the museum’s capacity to cultivate care and compassion beyond the walls and beyond now. 

Framing Open-minded Questions
Developing a really good question is difficult. This is especially true in trying to understand open-minded questions and how they might move us towards greater connection. We might start by asking: 

What might this other person be experiencing?
How can we better understand what someone else might feel?
How can I grow my relationship with someone whose ideas are different from mine?
What interests you about how someone else thinks, or thinks differently?
What did people take away that was different from what I thought or hoped they’d take away?
What did you hear in that voice that spoke to you?
What did you discover about yourself?
How can we act for others?
What can I learn from this person? 
What am I not hearing?
What would make you feel more welcome?
What will we discover about ourselves through this experience?

What open-minded questions do you bring to your museum conversations?

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