In my last post, I shared four forms of speech (Torbert et al) that define a richer and clearer palette of conversation in meetings (or in life). The two I find most absent or abused in purposeful conversation are inquiring and framing. So I wanted to dig into each of them in turn.
Inquiring, according to Torbert, “involves questioning others, in order to learn something from them. In principle, the simplest thing in the world; in practice one of the most difficult things in the world to do effectively.”
What’s so hard about it? Often, the inquirer is just sloppy and hasn’t fully committed to curiosity rather than some other goal (advocating, illustrating, framing). Often, we’re just not comfortable asking an open question, because we become vulnerable in the process — this exposes something I don’t know, this is an indication that I’m the weaker of us in this moment, this may lead to some insight or idea I’m not expecting or prepared for.
Edgar H. Schein explores this challenge in his book Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking instead of Telling. In addition to much more context than I’ve shared above about why inquiry is hard, and what often derails us, he offers four forms of inquiry that can add clarity and color to our work:
- Humble Inquiry “maximizes my curiosity and interest in the other person and minimizes bias and preconceptions about the other person. I want to access my ignorance and ask for information in the least biased and threatening way…. I want others to feel that I accept them, am interested in them, and am genuinely curious about what is on their minds regarding the particular situation we find ourselves in.”
- Diagnostic Inquiry occurs “when I get curious about a particular thing the other person is telling me and choose to focus on it. I am not telling with this kind of question, but I am steering the conversation and influencing the other person’s mental process….” Schein suggests that such diagnosis can pull focus on the feelings and reactions of the other, the causes and motives that drive them, the actions they took or plan to take, or the systemic issues that build understanding of the total situation.
- Confrontational Inquiry is when you “insert your own ideas but in the form of a question…. The question may still be based on curiosity or interest, but it is now in connection to your own interests. I now want information related to something that I want to do or am thinking about.”
- Process-Oriented Inquiry shifts “the conversational focus onto the conversation itself…. Instead of continuing with the content of the conversation, this kind of inquiry suddenly focuses on the here-and-now interaction.”
And of course, conversation is best when it’s immediate and authentic, when we’re not distracting ourselves with various parts or types of speech or inquiry. But at the same time, conversation is one of our primary instruments as managers and professionals and humans. Doesn’t it make sense to know the range and resonance of that instrument? And perhaps practice a bit to improve your craft?