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 (either advocacy or inquiry). The technique described here involves consciously practicing to bring advocacy and inquiry into more of a balance that evens out your default pattern.
This balancing practice works to diffuse tension, make visible each person’s thinking, and bring more data to the table for more thoughtful consideration, discussion, and ultimately better decision-making.
It is critical to note that 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 more likely.
The benefits of an approach that balances advocacy and inquiry include that it:
- Brings more ideas to the table
- Increases the group’s knowledge and thinking
- 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
The suggestion that you consider bringing more inquiry into your style of advocacy is not intended to negate what you learned in Week 4 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 in your approach — 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||Staying in Conversations for Relationship or Conversations for Possibility too long, staying out of action, letting others dominate|
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 Week 3 to review how you might be short-circuiting reality. Consider whether you are operating from a for-the-business orientation (see Week 4) or need to go through the de-triggering steps you learned about in Week 4.
- 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 Week 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 Week 6).
Can you think of flags that would indicate an imbalance in favor of too much inquiry?
Pro tip: as you continue your study of the conversations around you, you may observe that there are times that do not call for as much of a balance between advocacy and inquiry. Similarly, there are scenarios where it is not appropriate to allow time for a lengthy discussion of possibility. As stated previously, the aim of the CCO is to equip you with powerful knowledge and technique so that you respond skillfully and in the most useful manner, given the demands of the situation. Be innovative in how you approach your conversations.
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. In fact, strong advocacy skills can become counterproductive if overused because those very skills can close you off from learning from one another.
- 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 (appropriate in certain situations)
- Where a balance between advocacy and inquiry is embraced, ideas about failure shift. Failure comes to be defined as avoiding creative tension or not exploring other views and the reasoning that supports those views.
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 characteristics of an opposite approach?
The table below shows model phrases you can use as you begin your practice of working to create more transparency as well as balance between advocacy and inquiry.
|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 and also here. Note, however, the point isn’t to memorize a list of questions. The models are for you to use as examples of how one might handle the scenarios they apply to 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.
Remember, it is critical to enter into practice with these techniques with an attitude of genuine curiosity. If used with the intent to lead or embarrass, these questioning techniques can produce deeper entrenchment and hardened conflict.
Pro tip: get comfortable with the idea that the goal of dealing with conflict isn’t necessarily agreement; rather, a more useful goal could be learning and identifying what is best for the business given what is known at the time. Even strong advocates can be uncomfortable dealing with conflict, particularly in a group setting, where they might fear creating the wrong impression or of creating negative repercussions. Balancing advocacy with inquiry is a skillful way to work within this dynamic and to surface useful data and opinions without excessive risk.
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