The Very First Question – Principle of Simultaneity

The very first question sets the direction of a conversation

I work mostly in New York city and I use cabs to get around.  When I get into one of those yellow New York cabs, after I settle in the back seat, and buckle up the seat belt, I make it a habit to look into the driver's rear view mirror, and first question I ask: ”What’s the best thing that’s happened to you today?”

I wait.

Usually, there's a pause until the cabbie slowing shifts his gaze to the rear view mirror to look into the eyes of this crazy person who just got into his cab.  Now remember, this is New York city: it’s rush hour 24/7, usually grid lock;  it could be 110 degrees and 100% humidity, or pouring with rain, sleeting, snowing or just plain dull and grey.

The BEST Thing?

Then, it happens, every time: his eyes shift to connect with mine and I see them crinkle and twinkle, I detect a sly smile extending his jaw slowly and he repeats, incredulously “the BEST thing?” – with an an inquisitive, lingering emphasis on the word “best.”

“Yes, the BEST thing,” I say calmly and confidently.

And I listen to the stories.

Our Stories Matter

In the years I've been practicing this behavior, I've listened the most uplifting stories from countless cab drivers. Best stories include:

  • waking up with my wife
  • talking to my mother on the phone in Ghana
  • working out at the gym
  • being there to pick up my daughter from school
  • meeting me
  • telling the girlfriend she can’t have the big screen TV that all her girlfriends have, “because it ain't about all that material #$*%!”

So one day, I get into a cab in Wall Street to go to Park Avenue.  I do my practice with my appreciative inquiry:  “What’s the best thing that’s happened to you today?”

Life Ain't All About Material S***

Well, this guy didn’t need any prompting.  He must have done Tony Robbins seminars at least 10 times.  He told me he jumps out of bed.  He’s always happy.  Life is what you make it.  You gotta be positive, because being negative don’t get you no #@*^.  He loves his job, New York City, and has absolutely nothing to complain about.  It was he who told me that he was so happy he’d told his girlfriend that morning that she couldn’t have the big screen TV, “because it ain't about all that material #$*%!

Whoa! Here was an enlightened cabbie.  Our conversation was truly generative.  While we were stuck in New York traffic, we co-created a great conversation and co-constructed a reality that excited us, made us laugh, caused us to reflect and share insights about life.

He asked about my story.  “Where you from?” he asks.

“I'm from Australia.”  I reply.

“Beautiful place” he says. “Beautiful place,” he repeats confidently.

“So, you've been there?”  I ask enthusiastically.

“No.  No.” His response is emphatic.  “But I will go there.”

I am sure he will!

“What work you do? he asks.

I explain I work with people and their businesses to help them focus on the best of who they are and what they do, and help them design and co-create a future they want.  “That is the BEST!” he says.  “We need more people like you in the world.”

So we get to my destination in Park Ave., and, as he pulls up to stop, he says “Ma’am, you do such good work in the world, you don’t pay me today.”

I am truly touched:  “You also do good work in the world.  And, thank you for your generous offer, but I want to pay you.”

As I gather my things to get out from his cab, an immaculately dressed man opens and holds the door for me – a common occurrence: someone is always ready to jump into an emptying cab in New York – and stepping onto the curb, I stop, look at the new customer directly in the eye and say to him, “He’s a good guy”, nodding towards the cab driver.

Before the driver pulls away from the curb, I hear the business man say to the cabdriver in an easy way, “I hear you are a good guy.” And then I hear laughter.

I went into my meeting with such an uplifted spirit.  I can only imagine the cab driver continued with his day in much the same way.

The Very First Question – the Principle of Simulaneity Sets the Direction of the Conversation.

This Principle enacted in my cab story shows that the very first question we ask creates the change or the direction of the conversation or inquiry.  If I had got into that cab and had asked what's the worst thing that's happened to you today, I would have heard a very different story.  Most of us do not pay attention to how important that first question is in setting the direction of the conversation.  We ask questions routinely, such as, “How's life?”  “What's wrong?” “How was your day?” And the responses we get are usually equally neutral:  “Okay.”  “Nothing.”

The Principle of Simultaneity makes us aware that, as change agents, leaders, friends, parents, or strangers (as in the cab story above), the very first question we ask starts the engagement process. The way we ask the questions determines what we find. It provides a moment of choice. Inquiry and change are simultaneous. The practice of Appreciative Inquiry involves the art of crafting and asking questions that elicit possibility and inspire hopeful images of the future.

We need to consider the direction of the question. Is it life depleting or life nurturing?