There’s a great deal of difference between the skills of questioning and effective inquiry.
In today’s world it’s not your technological expertise that gets you ahead. Technological expertise is assumed. But instead, it’s your ability to work well in collaborative, demanding situations. So it’s one thing to work as a team leader or member when you’re facing routine problems, but it’s quite another to perform well when things get tough. What’s most routinely overlooked, underappreciated—and therefore undermanaged—are those conversational capacities required for success in that highly collaborative work world.
Take, for example, one supposedly simple conversational competency, the ability to ask the best questions. Today’s expectations about what it means to participate responsibly in a meeting or discussion are more rigorous than ever. Arguing over unsubstantiated opinions no longer works. It’s not political talk radio any longer. Your questions will need the ability to get at the issues, the reasoning and the facts in the most divisive and contentious situations. And it’s those inquiry skills, that competency that facilitates deeper learning and holds people accountable for their views—even when they’re being hostile—that makes for ultimate personal and business success.
Inquiry is more than just questioning. Inquiry comes from authentic curiosity, while ordinary questioning can stem from contempt to disbelief. Just such lack of curiosity can sound like this: “You don’t really think that, do you?” “Is that the best you can do?” “Why the hell do you think that?” “Do you have a learning impediment?” Guess how far that will go.
In his brilliant new book—a book I wish I’d written—Craig Weber lays out a starter kit of sample inquiries. Although you’ll eventually want to put these acts of inquiry into your own language, you’ve got to start someplace. So as Weber writes, when someone states a position but fails to back it up with his or her thinking, we might respond with more than an ordinary question. Here are several rather sophisticated inquiries. Notice the underlying curiosity in the questions, the authenticity, the vulnerability as well as the ability to ask questions that many don’t think can be asked.
- I have to admit that I see the issue very differently, but before I jump to conclusions, please tell me what you have seen or heard that leads you to see it the way you do.
- Obviously, you’re looking at this differently. Help me see this through your lens. How are you making sense of X?
- Clearly, we don’t agree. Let’s see what our different perspectives can teach us about this issue. Explain in more detail how you’re seeing the situation.
- I’m intrigued by the way you’re framing this issue. Can you give an additional example or two so I can better understand your thinking?
If you look closely at Weber’s framing of these inquiries, you’ll notice that the inquiry first reveals that author’s attitude or perspective toward the issue. Then, he creates the inquiry in ways that get at a far better and richer understanding of the issue.
This kind of inquiry work is not learned overnight. And though the print makes the inquiry look obvious, ask yourself how many times you’ve seen and heard someone do this. As Duncan Watts puts it his intriguing book, “Everything is obvious“once you know how to do it. Or another way, understanding is simple, but doing it is really tough. In other words, this is deceptively simple in theory, but immensely challenging in practice. What causes this is our penchant for minimizing issues and our desire to win in a collaborative situation.
At the starter block
Since it’s tougher than anticipated to inquire, here are a few of the more elementary starter questions that Weber suggests:
- What are you seeing that leads you to that view?
- Tell me more about how you’re looking at this issue.
- What does this look like from your (marketing/finance/engineering) perspective?
- Help me expand my thinking on this. Tell me how you see X.
- What have you seen or heard that leads you to think X?
- Can you provide a couple of examples that illustrate your position?
- Can you give me an example of X?
- Can you illustrate why you see this so differently than I do?
Although I’ll be reviewing Weber’s Conversational Capacity in the near future, I want to say that this is one of those books that should be on every business person’s shelf. Unlike the other 99% of communication books published over the past ten years, Weber takes collaboration seriously, takes advantage of the recent work of Chris Argyris, organizational learning, cognitive psychology and problem solving—and gets down to the verbal nitty-gritty.
Craig Weber, Conversational Capacity: The secret to building successful teams that perform when the pressure is on. (New York: McGraw Hill), 2013.