Tag Archives: dialogue for better understanding

Day 288 – Retroactive Inquiry

Looking back at my post from yesterday, I’d like to say that I really don’t see curiosity as being mutually exclusive to critical thinking skills, although my post (written in a hot and crowded room when I was in a bad mood) could be interpreted that way. After all, as Walter Kotschnig said, “Keep your minds open but not so open that your brains fall out.”

This morning, in a cooler, quieter place, it struck me that the idea that managers earn and deserve their tens of million in compensation could be a good point to practice Inquiry on. Some possible questions:

Data selection step

  • What cases are you thinking of?
  • What criteria for determining compensation are you using?
  • How do you see the job, skill set, contribution, etc., of top managers?
  • What are you comparing their responsibilities to?

Adding meanings step

  • What do you think happens when those amounts of compensation are not paid?
  • How do you see the connection between the skill set and so on and the amounts paid?

Drawing conclusions step

  • What do people get paid for? or Why do companies pay salaries?

Taking action step

  • How can we establish appropriate pay scales, in your opinion?
  • What systems can we set up to make that work?


With special thanks to Quote Investigator for the original source of that quotation: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/04/13/open-mind/  I thought erroneously that it was from Carl Sagan.

Day 246 – Something else that makes Inquiry difficult

Something that makes Inquiry difficult for me is when the other person treats my points as baseless and ridiculous and implies that I am naive for thinking the way I do.

I know that Inquiry could help here. I could come across as mature and truly constructive, but as surely as Zidane rose to Materazzi’s bait at the 2006 World Cup so do I rise.

Back to the drawing board …

Day 184 – Interpersonal curiosity and listening

Yesterday I listened to someone with an open mind on a subject I see differently, on the refugee situation in Europe. (In other words, I practiced interpersonal curiosity.)

It’s not exactly that I disagree with what she said but that she said something so far removed from what I had heard or considered on the subject before that it was a leap for me. She comes from southeastern Europe, a much closer part of the continent to the action than Vienna, and her country has a long history of being dominated by the Ottoman Empire and others. This means she sees the influx of refugees from Muslim countries as much more threatening that I do, citing a centuries-long attempt on the part of Muslim countries to dominate or even topple Europe, the number of children Muslim families tend to have in comparison to native European families, and the sudden increase of refugees. She sees a deliberate plan behind this to finally succeed at dominating and perhaps even eradicating European culture.

From someone else (this is actually an important point) I probably wouldn’t take this seriously, but I’ve known the person for a long time and respect her intellect and emotional intelligence greatly. I feel I learned something by listening to her. I still don’t see the situation the way she does, but hearing what she had to say did broaden my perspective.

Day 038 – Baby steps in Inquiry

Today I did it. When I started to get into a wrangle with a friend (oddly, about what constitutes proper business attire in the state of Vermont), I stopped, composed myself, and started practicing Inquiry. I didn’t make it through the whole Ladder of Inference, but I managed the Data Selection step asking, “What examples do you have in mind?” At first she didn’t want to continue the conversation (I can only think that something in my tone of voice was more challenging then I meant it to be—remember, Inquiry is above all a state of mind). However, when I said I really wanted to know, she told me she was thinking of people who have made a success of their small businesses and been written up in Vermont Life. I didn’t feel the need to go further because that already cleared up for me why we disagreed. I was drawing on a different pool of small businesspeople but could understand immediately why her selection made sense to her. A small success! 🙂

Day 026 – Sample of an Inquiry journal

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.

Background information

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.

Day 025 – A story about what Inquiry can do

It may be helpful to share a story of what Inquiry can (and is designed to) do before I get into the nitty-gritty of the how-to.

I have been known to have students in courses practice live Inquiry with a partner on a subject they disagreed on. In one case, I was teaching a course online where I was in one place and all the students were together in another. After covering the basics of Inquiry I gave the students an assignment:

  1. Work with someone (e.g., a classmate) you don’t know very well.
  2. Find a topic you disagree on quite strongly and have fairly strong opinions on how to manage, e.g., smoking restrictions, vegetarianism, using labor in low-wage countries … You may already have had a conversation with this person on this topic and realized you don’t see eye-to-eye.
  3. Start a discussion about the topic you have chosen. Make it the objective of the conversation to practice Inquiry, remaining curious about what the other person has to say.
  4. When you are done write one page (about 250 words) answering the following questions (a) How did it go? To what extent did you feel able to practice the phrases and attitude at the center of Inquiry? (b) How did you feel about the outcome of the conversation? In what ways was it different from other conversations where you disagreed with someone? (c) What can you apply from this exercise to future conversations?

To my delight, two students not only did the assignment thoroughly but took it in the spirit in which it was assigned—as a chance to really explore someone else’s views. These two students had opposing views on abortion. They sat down and practiced Inquiry, and its counterpart Advocacy (also based on the Ladder of Inference), for over an hour on this incredibly emotional and usually divisive topic. At the end they reported that although they hadn’t changed their views they had much greater understanding of the complexity of the issue, why the other person saw the issue the way he or she did, and had acquired greater respect of people who held the opposing view.

Don’t you think that if we would do this more often, we would all get along better together and maybe even find solutions that are more acceptable for both parties and greater acceptance for solutions?