Complement your use of open-ended questions and move more deeply into the art of “talking with” rather than “talking at” by bringing more balance into your approach. Peter Senge, who is often referred to as the leading business strategist of the last century, describes this technique as balancing advocacy and inquiry.
Each of us has a tendency or habit in the way we think and speak to gravitate toward one or the other end of the spectrum ranging from advocacy to inquiry. The technique described here involves consciously practicing to bring advocacy and inquiry into more of a balance to even out your default pattern.
The benefits of an approach that balances advocacy and inquiry include that it:
- Brings more ideas to the table
- Bring more data to the table
- Increases the group’s knowledge and thinking
- Make visible each person’s approach
- Improves decision-making by encouraging more accurate knowledge and better understanding of the conclusions you reach
- Reduces unsurfaced conflict and downstream friction
- Strengthens relationships, builds trust, enhances collaboration
- Reduces negative impacts of the ladder of inference
It is critical to note that, similar to working with open-ended questions, the kind of inquiry we are discussing here must be born out of an attitude of genuine interest and curiosity. Such an attitude cannot exist unless you believe you have something to learn from the other person and also that you don’t have all the answers. Merely reciting questions without authenticity or sincere interest in learning something new will not assist you in navigating conflict. The other person is likely to detect a lack of genuine curiosity, making escalation of conflict and hostility more likely. Asking leading questions is equally unhelpful.
The suggestion that you consider bringing more inquiry into your style of advocacy is not intended to negate what you learned in Lesson 5 about taking a stand and filling action vacuums (both of which could be said to represent forms of telling). The table below — showing the key distinctions between pure advocacy and pure inquiry as well as the risks in overusing one over the other — will help to illustrate that an approach that balances the two produces the best results. Study the table and the flags listed below the table to increase your understanding of this technique.
|Pure advocacy||Pure inquiry|
|Goal is to win, not to find best solution||Effect is hiding our own opinions|
|Begets more advocacy (entrenchment and escalation are outcomes)||Dilutes outcomes and effectiveness|
|Moving straight to Conversations for Action (meaning less inclusion, fewer ideas on the table)||Staying in Conversations for Relationship or Conversations for Possibility too long (staying out of action, letting others dominate, homogeneity)|
You can see that an approach or style that leans too far in either direction is bound to create more conflict and to lessen the quality of your relationships and decisions. Both lead to less data, fewer perspectives, less understanding, and so on. To further illustrate, let’s look at some of the flags to be on the lookout for. These flags are signals that your approach could be imbalanced in favor of too much advocacy.
- Are you truly open to new information and ideas or is your goal to win or look smarter than the other person? If you aren’t really open, it might be helpful to return to Lesson 3 to review how you might be short-circuiting reality with an overactive ladder of inference. Consider whether you are operating from a for-the-business orientation (see Lesson 5) or need to go through the de-triggering steps you learned about in that lesson.
- Is what you are doing aggravating the situation? If so, it is possible you aren’t approaching the other person with a spirit of true curiosity, and this may be evident to them. Your Five Deep Breaths technique from Lesson 3 could assist you to take a step back and reevaluate your approach to the situation. After a round of deep breathing, consider whether you can bring any more curiosity into how you are listening and seeing things.
- Are you “in the weeds;” or talking only about implementation when others in the room seem to want to talk about their big vision (possibility)? It is possible that you shortchanged the other types of conversation and moved too rapidly to a Conversation for Action (see Lesson 6).
Can you think of flags that would indicate an imbalance in favor of too much inquiry?
As tasks become more complex and more interdependent and as the teams working to perform those tasks become more diverse (e.g., in terms of professional discipline, culture, or status), the skill of balancing your approach grows in importance.
- Ask big questions. Ask thoughtful questions. Draw out more information.
Foundational themes in an approach that balances advocacy and inquiry include:
- For-the-business orientation
- Fearlessness that shows up as undefended curiosity, a desire to pursue what is best for the business or what is true that isn’t bogged down in politics or personal concerns
- A quality of vulnerability (as appropriate for the situation)
Pause for a moment here and inquire of yourself:
- What does it feel like when the above themes are present in an interaction?
- What are some of the themes or characteristics of an opposite approach?
- When we embrace a balance between advocacy and inquiry, we become more open and more comfortable with a higher level of transparency. Along with this openness, our ideas about mistakes and failure tend to shift. Failure comes to be defined as not exploring other viewpoints or not doing what we need to do to learn from mistakes.
Let’s pause for a moment to hear from Danika about how she sees mistakes as opportunities for learning and her approach to handling them.
To practice creating more openness and transparency in your life, start working with some simple phrases. The table below shows a few model phrases you can use to get started. When used in combination, you can see the balance between advocacy and inquiry emerging.
|To make your reasoning explicit||“Here is my view and how I arrived at it.”|
|To encourage exploration of your view||“How does that sound to you?”
“Do you see gaps?”
“Do you have different data, conclusions, or both?”
|To surface assumptions||“Here are my going-in assumptions…”|
|To encourage others to provide different views and to flesh out these different views||“Can you illustrate your viewpoint for me?”
“What positive or negative consequences do you see for going down this path?”
You will find a robust list of additional balancing statements you can experiment with in this week’s Learning Lab. Note, however, the point isn’t to memorize a list of questions. The sample phrases are provided for you as examples of how one might handle the given scenarios and to help you practice. Modify them and make them your own.
- Ask questions that will elicit more than a yes or no. In the spirit of curiosity and truly wanting to learn something from the person you are asking, your attitude, style of listening, and authenticity are more important than any particular combination of words.
When used skillfully, working with this more open form of communication cultivates a culture that is more receptive to ideas, more inclusive of diverse views, better at separating opinion from facts, and more receptive to authentic participation because there is less fear of losing face.
“Organizations learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. But without it no organizational learning occurs.”
— Peter Senge