Some basic information to help you on your way:
“Inquiry means listening with the intention of genuinely understanding the thoughts and feelings of the speaker.” (Ancona, et al., Harvard Business Review, 2007)
For our purposes, Inquiry always means trying to understand how the other person sees the situation. It is not about what is objectively right. For that reason, most questions include phrases like “In your opinion ….”
Inquiry is most useful for those times when you get into a discussion with someone you disagree with and the discussion is not making any progress. I started keeping an Inquiry journal when I realized that all the knowledge I had about this way of communicating did not help me when I got into what I call “wrangles,” where I still found myself simply presenting and advocating my point of view and trying to show the other person how their view didn’t make any sense. (To picture this, imagine the struggles between cowhands and the cattle they are lassoing. I would sit on my high horse and try to get my students, for example, to accept what I was telling them. They were wriggling and trying to get away. We got nowhere.)
There are two related ways of using the Ladder of Inference to talk more productively about opposing viewpoints. They are part of a communication technique built on the Ladder of Inference and developed by Diana McLain Smith. The first is Advocacy, where we make clear the steps in our own inference processes. The second is Inquiry, the focus of the exercise below, where we seek to understand more completely the other person’s worldview and why they hold that view.
Inquiry journal – a sample entry
Imagine you are speaking with someone and suddenly realize you two disagree on a point. Your find yourself getting heated and clinging ever more dearly to your own position. The person you’re speaking with does the same. Because of this, the conversation is going nowhere. It has become a ping pong game rather than, perhaps, a relay race. How can you get moving again, grow to understand why the other person holds the view he or she does, build the relationship, learn more, and all kinds of other good things? Try this way of probing with questions based on the Ladder of Inference:
|Steps on the Ladder of Inference||Corresponding questions or points in our system of Inquiry|
|(1) The speaker says this. You belong to the “slide into the grave saying ‘what a trip’” school of thought||“Our bodies are temples. We must take care of them.”|
|(5) Action||· What do we need to do to live up to that?
· What do we need to avoid?
|(4) Conclusion (often a “should”)||· How should we relate to our bodies?
· What is truly important in life?
|(3) Added meanings||· When you see people taking care of their bodies how do you feel?
· How do you feel when you see people not taking care of their bodies?
· What do you associate with people who abuse their bodies?
|(2) Data selection||· What does “take care of it” mean to you?
· What examples are you thinking of?
|P O O L O F D A T A|
Once again, for quick reference:
The Pool of Data is all the objective evidence or facts available on the topic. Everyone has access to all of this.
The Data Selection step asks about what examples the speaker is drawing on and / or what experiences they have had in connection with the topic.
The Added Meanings step is trying to find out how the person feels about or reacts to the examples or experiences they have had.
The Conclusion step is often a “should”. It tries to understand how the speaker thinks the world should be. It is often a very general point and can be somewhat philosophical (as you can see above).
The Action step is finding out how the speaker thinks the point made in the Conclusion step should be lived. What behaviors, what actions best fit with or express the Conclusion.
Ancona, Malone, Orlikowski, and Senge. “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader” Harvard Business Review, February 2007
Argyris, Chris. Overcoming Organizational Defenses. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.; 1990
Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Ross, and Smith. The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 1994.